Happy 30th Anniversary to Leonard Cohen’s eighth studio album I’m Your Man, originally released February 2, 1988.
In 1988, Leonard Cohen added an eighth album to his already prolific oeuvre. I’m Your Man was an unexpected addition, a synth-pop record, and a modern departure from his classic standards. His singing had grizzled a bit into a growl, adding to the “ladies’ man” allure he spent years cultivating. The weak voice that once trickled out lonely lyrics became jaded with bass. In a 1997 interview with Uncut magazine, reflecting on the album, Cohen stated, "On I'm Your Man, my voice had settled and I didn't feel ambiguous about it. I could at last deliver the songs with the authority and intensity required."
Four years away from his last release, Various Positions, which included his most iconic song, “Hallelujah,” Cohen expanded on his use of synthesizers. Older and wiser, Cohen began to own the sad-eyed malaise as an affectation instead of chronic condition. Taking control of his melancholy, he was able to turn it around and find some humor in the darkness. Jennifer Warnes, his frequent collaborator, returned as well, adding her rich vocals to Cohen’s atonal drawl.
The cover of I’m Your Man is distinguishing in its humor. Consistently gracing his album covers with his handsome, dark features, the figure that Cohen cut on the cover of I’m Your Man has remained the most prolific. Cohen later remembered choosing the photo, a portrait that is simultaneously slick and silly. He recalls, “'Here's this guy looking cool,' I thought, 'in shades and a nice suit. He seems to have a grip on things, an idea of himself.' And it suddenly occurred to me that's everyone's dilemma: at the times we think we're the coolest, what everyone else sees is a guy with his mouth full of banana."
From the start of I’m Your Man, the experience feels different than Cohen’s previous albums. A much more up-tempo track than normally associated with the singer, “First We Take Manhattan” could be mixed into a house set today. But unlike other pop music of the time, the drum machine ticks along to deep religious allegory, ruminations on “psychic terrorism” and Irving Layton (a mentor of Cohen’s) poetry.
“Ain’t No Cure For Love” is a steady R&B track beautified by Warnes’ heavenly vocals. The song was originally featured on her 1987 album Famous Blue Raincoat, a tribute to Cohen. On the I’m Your Man version, Cohen ends with fine-tuned lyrics and a different message, one more spiritual and obscure than Warnes’ heartbreak balladry.
“Everybody Knows” is catchy, yet somber. The song is a collaboration with Sharon Robinson, a singer and frequent partner of Cohen’s. The wry, dark lyrics feel extra relevant in 2018. Their message is clear: if you aren’t feeling cynical, you aren’t paying attention (but you can still have a sense of humor). Later, the song was featured in early ‘90s films Pump Up the Volume and Exotica, introducing Cohen to a younger audience.
“I’m Your Man” is a jazzy, slinky love song. Beginning with, “If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you ask me to,” Cohen lists the depths of his devotion, reinforcing his lusty paramour identity. The over-the-top amour of the song is nearly parodical, but would remain a standard for Cohen throughout the rest of his career.
“Take This Waltz” is a literal waltz, in triple time, with lilting lyrics, and old Russian-style violin. The ease of the song conceals the massive effort involved in the translation of poetry, and the gravity of interpreting a master. The song, based on a Federico García Lorca poem, was originally recorded in tribute to the poet on an earlier project. Cohen’s take, is not literal, word for word, but stanza to stanza. The themes, tone and feeling are the same, a distinction neatly conveyed in the obvious lack of translation in Cohen’s “Ay, ay, ay, ay” lament, proclaimed in the same voice as Lorca.
“Jazz Police” is an ‘80s misfire amongst the stronger tracks. It’s quirky, too much of something not very good. The paranoid, convoluted lyrics could potentially make a meaty poem to unpack, but in this format, heavy on synth gimmicks, it just feels out of place. Following “Jazz Police,” “I Can’t Forget” is mercifully cool. The twangy guitar and laid-back marimba are great example of Cohen as a musician. His thoughtful restraint and careful arrangements are so meaningful to each song, yet often eclipsed by the complexity of his lyrics.
“Tower of Song” is restrained, gently synthesized, like past Cohen, whispering “Suzanne.” It contains some of Cohen’s best one-liners (“I was born like this, I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice”), and he luxuriates in the ease and length of the song. The poetry of his lyrics unwinds, gently closing out I’m Your Man with Cohen’s philosophy on music and his purpose as an artist. The song is a powerful reminiscence on Cohen’s career and public profile. He views the act of making music as service to mankind, his higher calling. His music has utility, not as background noise, but in the same way poetry and literature help sustain life. He doesn’t sing because he can, he sings because he has to.
On the same side of an album, Cohen can play a sexy lothario or philosophical radical. He is unafraid of big themes, but not above the simpler, hedonistic pleasures of life. But beneath each costume is a man who fully embodies the life of an artist and the drive to create. The time between his debut of “Suzanne” and I’m Your Man is a time of significant artistic growth, beautifully represented in his previous albums. The depressed, lonely poet of “Bird on the Wire” returns as a sage, if weary, prophet of music on I’m Your Man, a beautiful classic that captures essential Cohen in a trendy, entertaining format.