Sunday, October 7, 2012

Birthstones => Leonard Cohen Covers: Diamonds in the Mine

[purchase album]

Being the moderator of Star Maker Machine is an honor, but it can sometimes put me in an odd position. Leonard Cohen is an artist who is important to many in a very personal way, and that certainly includes a large number of his fellow musicians. So he certainly deserves to have a week here devoted to his songs. The problem for me is that I never really got into Cohen’s work myself. I would venture to say that I know more of his songs from covers than from his originals, by far. And the original recordings that I have heard have not appealed to me that much. Cohen, it seems to me, often writes from a very dark place, and his performances are often deeply depressing to me. Cover versions of Cohen, however, are another matter entirely. Some are classics, and deservedly so, and we will probably hear some of those this week. But, more generally, it seems to me that many artists who cover Cohen pull away from the darkness somewhat, lightening the mood just enough to make the darkness bearable. Then, we as listeners can approach the songs safely, and the brilliance of the writing is fully revealed.

Which is all very nice, but almost the opposite happens with Elliott Murphy’s version of Diamonds in the Mine. Of course, I couldn’t resist doing a tie-in with last week’s theme when I saw the title of this one. But here, Cohen’s original is an almost joyous anthem, arranged for a full band with a chorus of female vocals. This creates an ironic clash between the arrangement and the lyric, which can be taken as either angry or despairing. Elliott Murphy strips the song down to an almost stark arrangement for just two acoustic guitars and voice. (If anyone knows who the second guitar player and background singer is, could you please tell everyone in the comments? Thanks.) So Murphy’s version brings out the full sadness of the lyric without the irony, but it breathes enough that it doesn’t come off as despairing. There is hurt here, but Murphy also allows the listener to feel hopeful.

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