The Leonards: Patrick Leonard (left) and Leonard Cohen at work in the latter’s house.
Leonard Cohen Collaborations
Although Leonard Cohen’s professional persona is that of the consummate solo artist, he has a long history of collaboration. Sharon Robinson, for example, co-wrote and produced Ten New Songs as well as singing and playing all the instruments on the album. A single sentence from Robert Christgau’s commentary on New Skin for Old Ceremony economically attests to the significance of two of Cohen’s best known producers:
Some of the new songs are less than memorable, but the settings, by John Lissauer, have the bizarre feel of John Simon’s “overproduction” on Cohen’s first album, which I always believed suited his studied vulgarity perfectly.
Similarly, Jennifer Warnes, Bob Johnston, Lewis Furey, Anjani Thomas, and Henry Lewy, among other musicians, songwriters, and producers, have influenced Cohen’s music. And, while the impact of some individuals has been limited to a single instance, e.g., Phil Spector’s work on “Death Of A Ladies’ Man,” several collaborators have left their imprints on a number of projects over a period of years.
The Two Leonards
Patrick Leonard, who co-wrote three songs on the Old Ideas album and co-wrote eight of the nine songs on Popular Problems, is Cohen’s confederate in the current edition of these musical partnerships. The pair, in fact, are said to have “half of another album in the can.” This post offers an introduction to the nature of this collaboration.
Patrick Leonard’s efforts have changed how Leonard Cohen songs are created. Perhaps the most obvious effect has been the acceleration of Cohen’s notoriously slow, laborious development process:
“Some of them came together with shockingly alarming speed,” said Cohen, who recorded many of the songs at his home studio. “Usually, I take a long, long time – partly because of an addiction to perfection, partly just sheer laziness.”
More fundamentally, Patrick Leonard has also effected a qualitative shift in Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre. Even listeners who lack the musicological terminology to articulate the distinction find it easy enough to distinguish between the sound of Popular Problems and that of the albums preceding Old Ideas. If you love Popular Problems, hate it, or are intensely ambivalent about it, it is likely that Patrick Leonard’s contribution is a major factor in your assessment.
Cohen describes how he and Patrick Leonard worked together on the album:
“It was a very agreeable collaboration because of an absence of ego and an abundance of musical ideas on Patrick’s part.” … “I would have a rhythm in mind and a position” on tempo and accompaniment, Cohen noted. “I had the function of the veto. Most of the musical ideas were Patrick’s, with a bit of modifications. Whether there were horns or violin, all of those things were decided mutually.”
The mission statement of their joint effort is suggested in a response by Leonard Cohen to the interviewer’s implicit question, “Patrick said that part of the process of working together was stripping out any excesses or fripperies.”
“Yes, both in the music and in the lyric. We were both, I think, quite compassionately savage about our vision. Pat, because he has such an abundance of musical ideas, he’ll sometimes overproduce. But he’s quite aware of that. So sometimes we’ll just say we don’t need a chorus here, we don’t need horns here, you know, we need to break it down here. And same with the lyric: If something’s obscure or just on the wrong side of accessible, then Pat will mention that and I’ll happily redirect.”
There is contention among critics about the quality of Patrick Leonard’s impact. The Patrick Leonard is a genius school of thought is set forth in the Paste review of Popular Problems:
Patrick Leonard, Cohen’s musical foil, is back in the producer’s seat for Popular Problems and much of the credit for the album’s full sound is likely due to his participation. In the past, Cohen’s albums were often very minimalist affairs with skeletal arrangements played on bizarre or antiquated instruments. (Has an old Cassio keyboard ever sounded more perfectly creepy than it does on “Tower of Song”?) This time around, perhaps influenced by the experience of touring with a large band for the past several years, Cohen’s music is fuller and deeper than it has ever been on previous studio albums. The doom and gloom reflected in the lyrics of songs like “Nevermind” and “Born in Chains” is offset—and somehow strengthened—by the rich musical score that accompanies his voice. The warm organ riffs and swooping Stax-y horns sections that bolster “My Oh My” are similarly uplifting. Musically speaking, Cohen’s never sounded half as good as he does all the way through Popular Problems.
Representing – oh, let’s go with “an alternative perspective” is this excerpt from Dave Tutin’s post about the same album:
Where the Patrick Leonard songs fall down is a lack of melody. People who say Cohen’s work has always been about droning dirges with little melody have never really listened. From early work like Suzanne, through Hallelujah to Alexandra Leaving, Cohen has been as much about breathtakingly beautiful tunes as he has stunningly crafted lyrics. His melodies were always spot on for the delicately shifting meanings conveyed by his lyrics. There are no such melodies on Popular Problems (although the song released early to prompt the album, Almost Like The Blues, comes the closest – obviously why it was chosen). Sharon Robinson did a far better job of writing Cohen-esque melodies for him starting with tracks on The Future and culminating in the full album collaboration Ten New Songs.
I think Patrick believes the ‘trick’ to a Cohen song is to keep it very simple and to take into account Leonard’s limited and gravelly vocal capabilities. He’s wrong. Even within that rather special vocal approach of his, Mr Cohen has worked magic and still can. Anyone who has seen him perform live in the past few years can attest to that. No, the music here just sounds a little lazier than a monster talent like Cohen deserves. Not as good as Patrick’s contributions to the last album Old Ideas. That does not mean I won’t be playing it constantly for the next few days – simply to enjoy this man’s writing is so meaningful right now with so few artists coming close in terms of eloquence…or even trying! It’s just that when those days are over I’ll probably be playing Ten New Songs or I’m Your Man or The Future a lot more frequently than Popular Problems. Actually, it makes Old Ideas sound new again.
Evaluating these conflicting analyses is beyond the scope of this post, the goal of which is simply limning Patrick Leonard’s role as Leonard Cohen’s collaborator.
Much of the music on Popular Problems was composed by Patrick Leonard using a Mac laptop and sample libraries running in Logic, and in many cases these virtual instrument tracks survived into the final mixes.
And, no description of that function would be complete without a discussion of Patrick Leonard’s imposing technological contribution. Happily, there is now an article that goes into detail about both the technical and musical role Patrick Leonard played in the making of the album: Inside Track: Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems by Paul Tingen (Sound On Sound: Dec 20, 2014)
While portions of this piece require a near-professional level of knowledge of current studio mechanics to fully access, the qualities of the interplay between “The Leonards” are apparent and the shift from live instrumentation to sampling is emphasized.
While I recommend reading this article in full, I will close this post with three excerpts in which Pat Leonard talks about working with Leonard Cohen:
We’d accumulate several songs, and Leonard would learn to sing them, and I then went over to his house where we’d sit for an afternoon. He’d do 10 takes of each song, and I’d take them back home, where Jesse and I would comp the vocals for each song. After that we invited the musicians in. Drummer Brian McLeod and bassist Joe Ayoub played on ‘Slow’, and James Harrah even played a guitar part, but we all listened to it, and concluded: ‘You know what, the demo that was done in half an hour sounds and feels better.’ Better is a qualitative judgement of course, because things are always better for a certain purpose. The curtains in this room are red, because that colour works well in this room. That does not mean that red is better than blue! And so my demo backing was a better fit for Leonard’s lyrics and vocals.
When we work together, what we are really doing is trying to distil that experience as best as we can, and be as economical as possible in writing, performing, and production. Leonard comes up with phrases that will go through you like a screaming army. I aspire to that, but I know I don’t have in me what he has. What I can do is distil all my knowledge of music into a single drop, with each note being the right one.
The vocal sample in ‘Nevermind’ is one of those things that I would never have been able to accept in my younger years without first going into a screaming hissy fit,” says Patrick Leonard. “Here is what I have come to, and it may sound crazy, but I am going to stand by it: I’ve come to a place where I don’t care any more whether people think something is a sample, or not. … This is in part the result of something Leonard said to me when working on Old Ideas. I was writing a cello part and playing it with a sample, and I said to Leonard: ‘This will sound great when it is played on a real instrument.’ And Leonard replied, ‘I have news for you, because what you’re playing is real instrument. You push a key, and a sound comes out. That’s an instrument.’ “On this album we had a violinist come in to play on a few songs, and I’m glad we did, because it does sound better than the sampled violin. But Leonard pointed out that my performance in some cases was better, not because it sounded more like an actual violin, but because of the feel. So I now think that musicality is what’s most important, and I am much more focused on that.
Credit Due Department: Both photos in this post were found at Inside Track: Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems by Paul Tingen (Sound On Sound: Dec 20, 2014)