Schlepping round a recent Robert Breer retrospective it was impossible not to be struck by the both the breadth and narrowness of his work. Ranging from fast-paced, jerky animations to playful, moving sculptures, Breer clearly delighted in working in a range of mediums, but despite this it was hard to escape the feeling that in his later work a certain sense of perspective has been lost. The animations in particular feel repetitive and unfocused, not just on their own (as they are supposed to be) but also collectively, giving the impression he has lost sight of his overall aim and is instead concentrating on “perfecting the process”. It’s a trap that has snared many artists as they begin to micromanage their creativity in the hope of achieving perfection but succeed only echoing their past work, with each small change failing to have any significant impact on the finished piece.
It was perhaps a fear of such micromanagement which lead Leonard Cohen to form an unlikely partnership with producer Phil Spector, two men whose musical sensibilities were so far apart they must have both known the collaboration would be fraught before it began, but that it would also produce something very different from their past works. At this point in his career Cohen had released four largely acoustic albums, while Spector’s background lay in pop and it seems unlikely the pair could have ever come to agreement about how Death of Ladies’ Man should have sounded. The producer, perhaps sensing this took what Cohen regarded to be rough vocal takes of each track and then locked the singer-songwriter out of the studio while he added brass, strings, keyboards and, of course, drums with plenty of reverb. Cohen, meanwhile, was prevented from reworking his lyrics and, as such, there was no chance to self-censor, meaning the songs carry a sense of rawness and honesty that may have otherwise been lost.
The final result has many more good moments than bad. For the most part Spector’s arrangements complement Cohen’s singing, most noticeably on the opening track, True Love Leaves No Traces, where the lounge-style instrumentation mingles effortlessly with lyrics about just how complicated sexual intercourse can make life, even if you pretend it doesn’t – this subject being something of a theme across the album. Spector also successfully highlights Cohen’s often-overlooked humour. On Memories, an ode to adolescent lust, the deliberately-over-the-top backing track captures the mood and the bitter comedy of a desperate advance rejected. Tenderness isn’t an issue either, with I Left A Woman Waiting, one of many Cohen’s ballads dealing with the issue of a lover regretfully betrayed, treated with a lightness of touch that will surprise many who have dismissed the album out of hand.
For the most part, the Cohen/Spector collaboration works so well it’s even more jarring when it goes spectacularly wrong as happens towards the end. Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On is as childish and pointless as it sounds and no amount of production could have saved it, while Fingerprints, a jaunty country-esque, ditty is the only track on which Spector misses the mark. Given greater creative control, Cohen would have surely ditched or reworked both of these tracks, but then again given greater creative control Cohen may have ultimately scuppered the project entirely and that would have been a great shame.
Most Cohen aficionados, along with the artist himself, will always view the album with a sense of distain, but it would be churlish to dismiss it entirely, especially as it clearly took the Canadian out of his comfort zone and stopped him doing the same thing over and over again. The fuller sound of his later albums although never coming close to Spector’s excesses is clearly informed by them. An odd collaboration was inevitably going to produce an odd album, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good.