"I was born in a beauty salon."
The compilation album consisting of multiple acts recording a variety of songs penned by a single artist by way of tribute resulted in a series of releases which can be generously considered ‘patchy’. For every Step Right Up, or A Testimonial Dinner, two examples which actually worked, there were a dozen more ham-fisted attempts at hat tipping where you do have to wonder how flattered those being paid tribute to would have been.
First released in 1991, I’m Your Fan found a variety of alt-rocking indie types playing tribute to Leonard Cohen and it still stands as probably the best realised of these tribute albums. With Cohen himself on the commercial upswing thanks to 1988’s I’m Your Man, and those involved sounding genuinely enthused about paying tribute to Laughing Len, I’m Your Fan was particularly well timed, with moody indie types dominating proceedings. The likes of House of Love, That Petrol Emotion and Lloyd Cole always sounded like they’d spent hours pouring over albums like Songs From a Room and Songs of Love and Hate, so it’s no surprise that they make a good fist of things here. Same goes for Ian McCulloch, who at the time of recording was estranged from Echo and The Bunnymen, a band for whom the spectre of Leonard Cohen never seemed that far away.
Perhaps inevitably it’s those acts who were making in roads into the mainstream who are responsible for I’m Your Fan’s most accessible moments, with R.E.M.’s version of “First We Take Manhattan” opening the American version of this release, and James putting their stamp on “So Long Marianne”, complete with slightly too cheery drumming from David Baynton-Power. Elsewhere there are interesting diversions from the likes of Jean-Louis Murat’s version of “Avalanche” being sung in French, but sounding in no way our of place, David McComb and Adam Peters’ update of “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On”, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ frankly bonkers rendition “The Tower of Song” (Then again, can you imagine there being a tribute album to Leonard Cohen that didn’t include Cave and Co.?). Oddly enough, there are two versions of “The Tower of Song”, with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ version sounding like it was pieced together from a lengthy jam session, and Robert Forster’s being a much more straight forward, even poppy rendition.
In general the artists featured on your I’m Your Fan read as a Whose Who of late 80s and early 90s alt-rock and indie, though it is notably male dominated, with only Dead Famous People offering much in the way of gender diversity when it comes to lead vocals, which is a real shame. That said, things are relatively diverse sound wise, with Pixies rocking up “I Can’t Forget” being the heaviest rocking on the album, and the folk sounds of Geoffrey Oryema “Susanne” being the most faithful rendition when compared to Cohen’s original, even when you take into account the gently percolating percussion sounds.
The one act that does stand out apart from the alt-rock hoards on I’m Your Fan is John Cale, a man whose career was equally as lengthy as Cohen’s, be it as a founding member of The Velvet Underground, producer of a baffling variety of artists, guest musician on an even more baffling selection of albums, Punk Godfather, or experimental art rocker. Cale’s version of “Hallelujah” closes I’m You Fan, and for good reason, as it towers above over every other track on this compilation. Actually it also towers over every other version of “Hallelujah”, including Cohen’s over-egged original, with Cale’s stripped back piano and unvarnished vocals giving the song the necessary stately gravitas it has always required, and that has been utterly absent in not only the pop cover versions of the song which have all contributed to the watering down of the brilliance of the song, but also the famous and celebrated versions by Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley, both of which are just pale facsimiles of Cale’s definitive arrangement.
All things considered, from indie types tipping their hat to a poetic folky, to future global rock stars paying tribute, to a contemporary of Cohen laying down the definitive version of a song which has subsequently become a standard, I’m Your Fan is the greatest of all the tribute albums. If you’re a fan of 80s and 90s alt-rock, or Leonard Cohen himself, then I’m Your Fan remains a fascinating listen, and an album that is still worth seeking out to this day.