So what defines an artist’s career? In the case of Leonard Cohen it is a body of work that now spans over four decades and is one of the best and most respected in music history. He has just passed his 77th birthday and, in celebration, he and his label has just issued a spectacular box set, The Complete Columbia Albums Collection.
Cohen is that rare artist who has spent his entire career with the same label, which means this collection – 17 discs: 11 studio albums and six live ones – is indeed complete. There is also a shorter set of just the studio releases, but if you are going to shell out the funds for such an extensive box set, you might as well go the extra mile and buy the big one.
Each album is on a separate disc and enclosed in a mini-LP replica sleeve. All the music has been remastered from the original master tapes. An enclosed booklet includes discographical annotations and recording information, plus an extended essay by Pico Iyer. It all adds up to about as complete a retrospective as you can find.
The albums span 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen to 2009’s Songs From The Road. This march through time exposes the listener not only to the evolution of the artist’s music but to the progress of time itself, as Cohen’s lyrics intertwine with the progression of the last 40 years. Though a noted poet and novelist, it is as a singer and particularly as a lyricist that he has made his mark. His songs have been covered by other artists over 2,000 times.
He began his recording career as a folk artist, but his sound and style have expanded and meandered in a number of directions down through the years until it became uniquely his own. He has garnered notoriety as a pop star, recluse, troubadour, folk icon, philosopher, theologian, and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – and all are important aspects of his identity as well as his music.
Cohen burst upon the American music scene in the late ’60s with albums like Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs From A Room. Songs such as “Suzanne,” “Bird On A Wire,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Story of Isaac,” and “So Long Marianne” proved that a new songwriter of note was on the scene.
While some of his mid-career releases didn’t always earn as much attention as his early work, albums such as Various Positions (with songs like “Hallelujah” and “Dance Me To The End of Love”), I’m Your Man (“First We Take Manhattan” and “Ain’t No Cure For Love”), and Ten New Songs (“A Thousand Kisses Deep” and “The Land of Plenty”) were under-appreciated gems that showed his musical vision expanding in different directions, solidifying his stature as an under-the-radar superstar.
The live material serves as good companions to the studio material, with songs taking on new textures and nuances. As well, listeners can follow the evolution of some of his more famous compositions.
The last two albums in the set are Live At The Isle of Wight 1970, recorded August 31, 1970, and Songs From The Road, recorded in 2008 and 2009; and together they provide suitable bookends to Cohen’s career to date (a new studio album is due in January, 2012). Interestingly versions of “Bird On A Wire,” “Suzanne,” “The Partisan,” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” appear both albums, 38 years apart.
The Complete Columbia Albums Collection is a trip through the musical mind, music, and soul of Leonard Cohen. So too is it a wonderful odyssey of lyrical and cultural pictures of both a career and time period. For casual and hardcore fans alike, this one is essential.