It shouldn’t work. It should have been a complete and utter dud.
Of the old guard of the 60s and 70s, almost no one had made the hard synthetic production techniques of the 80s work for them. Sure, a few had maintained a certain level of commercial success, but at what cost to their integrity?
Leonard Cohen was in an unenviable position. The musical approach with which he had gained his greatest critical success, sparse acoustic arrangements topped by his sonorous voice, was so far out of fashion that it wasn’t even funny any more. Sure, his last few albums had seen him utilise much more depth to his sound, but that wasn’t working either. Indeed, his previous album, 1984’s Various Positions, wasn’t even originally released in America, as it was deemed too uncommercial. And that was the album that featured the original version of “Hallelujah” on it…
Then something unexpected happened. Former Cohen backing singer and collaborator Jennifer Warnes enjoyed a modest success with her tribute album of Leonard Cohen Covers, Famous Blue Raincoat, and suddenly everyone remembered how great he was.
Released just short of a year after Famous Blue Raincoat, I’m Your Man revitalised Leonard Cohen’s commercial and critical fortunes. While it might have been tempting to fall back on the old techniques that everyone had been recently reminded were so evocative, he instead put a contemporary spin on it. Where once sparse acoustic arrangements were favoured, I’m Your Man went all 80s on us, with Cohen providing a collection of top-draw songs with synthesiser arrangements and refreshingly sparse production. Some old school fans howled in fury, but on the whole, I’m Your Man was considered a career-revitalising return to form, with a very modern twist. It wasn’t the first time he’d dabbled with synthesisers, indeed, the opening track of Various Positions had made great use of them, however I’m Your Man was a full commitment to the digital age.
It starts with the very synth-pop sounds of “First We Take Manhattan”, a song which sounds both foreboding, yet an utter pop classic both at the same time. Combining very 80s pop female backing vocals, with the rather odd experience of Leonard Cohen sounding like he’s actually enjoying pretending to be a pop star. Hell, those that aren’t as rhythmically challenged as myself might be able to dance to this stuff. It’s then followed by a Leonard Cohen ballad delivered in a none-more 80s manner. Slowed down to a crawl, with synth rhythms, female backing vocals and an opening saxophone feature, “Ain’t No Cure for Love” became a crowd pleaser when performed at concerts, and confirmed that the opening track wasn’t just a one off to grab attention. Leonard Cohen liked these synthesiser thingies, and he was utilising them in a way that worked for him, rather than just adding them to try and sound modern.
The third track reminds you that Leonard Cohen’s stock in trade is dark and dour poetry. “Everybody Knows” is perhaps how most would imagine an album of Leonard Cohen synthesiser music would sound, confirming that he’d lost none of his old dark magic, but he was able to update it to make the most of contemporary studio techniques. Another highlight is the moody and sultry title track, which slows the pace to a crawl, however its wide use in films in subsequent decades has made it one of the most familiar Cohen numbers.
The second half of I’m Your Man shores up the first half, however by the time you’re hearing it, it’s not as striking, simply because you’ve already become acclimatised to Leonard Cohen backed by synthesisers. The songs are great and all, but are somewhat overshadowed by the first four numbers, before the closing “Tower of Song” ends the album on a truly unforgettable note.
“Tower of Song” is every bit as lofty and immense as its title suggests. A tongue in cheek self-assessment of Cohen’s place in the firmament of songwriting greats, it references Hank Williams, and somehow manages to be both epic and playful simultaneously. Only Leonard Cohen could have managed to pull off a song like this, and it’s fitting that it closes out this famous, yet opinion splitting album.
Yes. I’m Your Man, 30 years after it’s first release still splits opinion. Lyrically, it’s as great as anything he’s ever released, but the change of musical approach irked some of the purists in a way that they’ve never really been able to recover from. As for Cohen himself, he cared not for the options of others, as demonstrated by the fact that he chose a picture of him eating a banana for the album cover art.