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Music: Resurrecting the ladies’ man

[Snippet from “I Left a Woman Waiting”]

In the cover photograph for Death of a Ladies’ Man, Leonard Cohen’s deeply enigmatic 1977 album, the Canadian songwriting legend sits cigarette in hand, framed by two gorgeous women as if in a tableau. His expression is a mix of insouciance, dejection, and smirking superiority. Death of a Ladies’ Man was met with confusion upon its release, but in light of Cohen’s actual death—last month, at the age of 82—it deserves a second look. The album represents a midpoint between the artist’s sparse, insular early work and the visionary, sage-like, and musically adventurous records that followed it.

Produced by an aging and increasingly unhinged Phil Spector, the former AM-pop whiz kid who would eventually be convicted in a 2008 murder trial, the album bears the sonic hallmarks of Spector’s ’60s pop progeny. Heavily gated drums, syrupy string arrangements, and huge choirs abound. Take the doo-wop throwback “Memories”—a self-referential slow-jam in 6:8 with a saxophone solo that nods to “In the Still of the Night.”

[Saxophone solo from “Memories”]

The Spector sound, already atavistic by the mid-’70s, doesn’t quite jibe with Cohen, who was never much of a crooner—let alone a bombastic pop star. But this juxtaposition has aged better than critics at the time might have expected. Death of a Ladies’ Man’s legacy can be felt in the fractured-pop detritus of Dirty Beaches, the Vegas-via-Gothenburg sugar rush of Jens Lekman, and the self-conscious schmaltz of Father John Misty, who penned a tribute to the record on his 2012 debut.

[Snippet from opening verse of “Only Son of the Ladiesman” by Father John Misty]

What sells Death of a Ladies’ Man are Cohen’s lyrics, which at their best here are as good as any he ever wrote. From “True Love Leaves No Traces,” a seemingly romantic ode with a nihilistic bite, to the sweeping nine-minute title track, Cohen’s world-weary missives on the vacancy of love and the diminishing returns of sex clash with the orchestration. Cohen recasts Spector’s sonic signifiers of teenage innocence as gateway drugs to a rock bottom of ultimate decadence.

[Snippet from opening verse of “True Love Leaves No Traces”]

There’s no doubt that this is an indulgent album. And listening to a song like the deeply misguided “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On,” one feels tempted to take this indulgence at face value. But on the whole, the strung-out playboy image that Cohen conjures on Ladies’ Man evokes deep pathos—a near-tragic aspect turned triumphant by the fact that many of Cohen’s best and most daring albums were still in store. For instance, it’s hard to imagine I’m Your Man, the masterful electronic left-turn released a decade after Ladies’ Man, existing without this earlier, even more daring experiment. If I can make it through this, Cohen’s speaker seems to say, I can handle anything. In this light, we might read “Paper Thin Hotel,” Ladies’ Man’s strongest and most exemplary piece, through an autobiographical lens: as a purgative encounter with depravity so total that, perversely, it absolves.

[Snippet from “Paper Thin Hotel” with the line “A heavy burden lifted from my soul…”]

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