This is Leonard Cohen’s rawest album. As the title suggests, it is a simpler and more stripped down version of Cohen’s previous album Songs of Leonard Cohen, which, despite its greatness, he faulted for what he considered gratuitous instrumentation. Therefore, in Songs from a Room Cohen replaced the sweet sounds of organs, mandolins and horns with the simple, grating Jewish harp, which pervades through the whole album. And this harp is perhaps the most symbolic of Cohen for it repels glamour, a trait he would continuously try to reject, for example in his ironically titled album Death of a Ladies’ Man. Instead the Jewish harp reflects a toneless man of limited musical ability playing the most beautiful songs. Furthermore many of the songs are barely original: he uses almost identical chords in “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes” as in his earlier song “So Long Marianne”. Also his song “The Partisan” is a cover of the French Resistance anthem, and employs the same finger-picking technique as in “The Stranger Song”. Even the album cover is very similar to Songs of Leonard Cohen: a simple portrait. However, this was not a sign that Cohen was losing inspiration, but was more a method of honing on what mattered to him; and so we see a man directly in his element. For we must remember that despite this only being Cohen’s second album, he was already 34 years old, and had been an accomplished poet for almost a decade now. Therefore it would not be unfair to say that by this time he was sure of his musical direction.
This is also Leonard Cohen’s darkest album. For Cohen had just come from a deep bout of depression. Indeed his opening song “Bird on a Wire” was a method to get out of his abyss by relating his struggle: “Like a baby, stillborn/ Like a beast with his horn/ I have torn everyone who reached out for me”. However, unlike his following album Songs of Love and Hate, where Cohen spews his scorn, in Songs from a Room, Cohen internalises all his grief. This produces a chilling effect. For in his songs Cohen stays horrifically calm: while singing “Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows” in “The Old Revolution” or narrating the (apparently true) doomed life of a girl called Nancy in “Seems So Long Ago Nancy”. However, near the end of the album, Cohen offers a glimmer of hope in his song “Tonight We’ll Be Fine”, and also acknowledges his responsibility to those who love him, that despite his desolation he knows that they are in it together. And it is this acknowledgement that makes us realize that soon Cohen will leave this room and get over his depression. But he has left us just enough to hear this incredible man in his purest and most personal musical state.