Home Music Revisit: Leonard Cohen: Death of a Ladies’ Man

Revisit: Leonard Cohen: Death of a Ladies’ Man






Death of a Ladies’ Man is a difficult and wholly unique beast of an album. There’s the obvious complaint regarding the glut of instrumentation and studio effects that were the hallmark of producer Phil Spector, seen as tainting the intimacy of Leonard Cohen’s singular brand of folk song. There’s also the legacy of Spector who would end up dying in prison following a murder conviction, and Cohen’s effective disowning of the album following Spector’s refusal to alter the production to Cohen’s specifications. This baggage alone would make it a difficult listen, but it’s nothing compared to the sounds actually contained within the grooves when viewed within the context of either’s catalog. It’s a wildly overproduced, over-arranged instrumental bacchanal that sounds every bit of its 1977 release date. But it’s also a singular, fascinating entry in the careers of two iconic figures in 20th century music. You just have to get past a few things (or completely lose yourself within them) in order to get there.

In essence, Nino Tempo’s arrangements and Spector’s army of first-call session musicians bringing each to life are more often than not bordering on wildly overwhelming. But there’s a certain majestic quality to the arrangements, so steeped in layers and layers of sound that one can almost wander at length through each track, taking notice of something new and different with each and every listen. Because of this, Death of a Ladies’ Man is not an album that can be consumed with indifference or nonchalance. Rather, it requires a full surrendering on the part of the listener, a loosing of preconceived notions of either Spector or Cohen’s canon as it is so radically different from what either produced before or after as to seem almost willfully anomalous. It’s this particularly unique quality that makes Death of a Ladies’ Man such a fascinatingly complex listen, in that, regardless of how many times it is heard, never fully permeates the mind of the listener.

Opening track “True Love Leaves No Traces” rides along on a fairly straightforward lyric from Cohen, the imagery at once poetic (“True love leaves no traces/ If you and I are one / It’s lost in our embraces/ Like stars against the sun”) and rooted in romance. Yet it’s the melodic device in which these lyrics are delivered that really sells the song, the melody itself taking an odd, yet incessantly attention-grabbing turn into ear worm territory. On top of that, there’s layers and layers of ideas and instrumental motifs and you’ve got nearly four-and-a-half minutes of music that could take years to unpack.

Take, for instance, the woodwind melody that runs counter to the vocal melody. This isn’t so much a complementary line as it is a wholly different melodic idea that makes it sound as though two separate tracks were being played simultaneously. And yet the gentle, upward ebb and flow of the woodwind melody manages to work perfectly in tandem with the melody. And underneath all of this, there is a layer of slowed-down R&B horns, Spector’s over-the-top phasing effects on the song’s chorus and the myriad other string-derived sounds employed throughout. All this together results in a finished product that is the aural equivalent of a warm summer afternoon spent at the seaside, the waves gently lapping the ever-warming sand, the heat of the sun causing a mildly hallucinogenic experience. Woozy, perhaps, would be a better way of putting the resulting effect of listening to “True Love Leaves No Traces”.

Conversely, “Iodine” tends to suffer from Spector’s studio tinkering, the deranged producer’s absurd overuse of reverb and phasing threatening to undo the whole of an otherwise fine cabaret-style arrangement from Tempo. Where “True Love” produced a dizzying effect through instrumentation alone, “Iodine” attempts to replicate this byproduct through artificial means, thus lessening its overall impact. The drums alone are an auditory crime, though a hallmark of Spector’s scant few ‘70s productions (see also Dion’s grossly overlooked, Spector-produced Born to Be with You) that threaten to throw the whole of the track out of whack, rhythmically, with their disorienting delay. It’s a strange aesthetic choice, particularly given its complete and total absence on the subsequent track, “Paper Thin Hotel.”

“Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On” may well be the funkiest thing either Spector or Cohen ever produced. An unexpected bit of strutting funk, “Hard-On” rides along on Ray Neapolitan’s bubbling, proto-disco bass and Jim Keltner’s martial, almost second line-esque snare work on the song’s chorus. Coupled with the horns, it’s a wildly enjoyable ride that managed to rope in both Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg on backing vocals. The lyrics themselves are somewhat lacking for Cohen, but they’re more than made up for in the arrangement (though who doesn’t like belting out lines like, “Don’t go home with your hard-on/ It will only drive you insane/ You can’t shake it or break it with your Motown/ You can’t melt it down in the rain”?)

Finally, the title track sounds like Spector’s attempt to repurpose the slow-rolling, ascending melodic ideas behind Dion’s “Born to Be with You.” These two songs, both epic in scope and scale, are some of the best examples of Spector’s ‘70s work as they manage to balance the brilliance of his Wall of Sound days with the megalomaniacal madness that was quickly taking over and would effectively derail the remainder of his career and forever tarnish his legacy. Death of a Ladies’ Man is certainly not for everyone (particularly the feint of heart) and requires a great deal of investment on the part of the listener. But those willing to make the investment will find themselves greatly rewarded by some of the most affecting work of either Spector or Cohen.

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