(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #2 – released February 1968)

Track listing: Suzanne / Master Song / Winter Lady / Stranger Song / Sisters of Mercy / So Long, Marianne / Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye / Stories of the Street / Teachers / One of Us Cannot Be Wrong

I once read somewhere that Robert Altman heard SONGS OF LEONARD COHEN at a party and had an “eureka!” moment, thinking it the perfect soundtrack for the film he was working on, 1971’s McCABE & MS. MILLER; never mind that McCABE was set in 1902 and the album was recorded 65 years later. Both the film, an idiosyncratic, revisionist western from a New Hollywood auteur and the album, itself an idiosyncratic, revisionist collection of folk songs written and sung by a poet from Montreal convey timelessness and reflection, favoring poetry over prose while maintaining a narrative structure.

Although McCABE uses only three of Cohen’s songs (“Winter Lady”, “Stranger Song” and “Sisters of Mercy”), both film and album are forever linked together in my mind. I had heard the latter first via a dollar-bin vinyl copy purchased as a college undergrad, not long after discovering Cohen’s 1988 album I’M YOUR MAN. By then, he had altered his sound radically, favoring a deliberately chintzy aesthetic full of cheapo keyboards, cooing female background vocals and his own low, ravaged voice a more-often-spoken-than-sung growl. SONGS, Cohen’s debut album from twenty years before sounds like the work of another man: it’s primarily acoustic guitar-based, often accentuated by strings and occasional horn and organ flourishes. Most alarmingly different is Cohen’s higher vocal timbre–I was initially unable to reconcile it with the lower tone I knew and loved, playing SONGS once or twice and filing it away.

A few years on, I’d moved to Boston to study film. As I made my way through Altman’s filmography (particularly his peak early-70s period), I finally got to McCABE, having put it aside simply because it was a western, never one of my favorite genres. However, as “Stranger Song” played over the opening credits, where the lead (Warren Beatty), concealed in a hat and period gear, rides a horse into a rain-drenched, Pacific Northwest milieu, it’s no exaggeration to say it took my breath away. Rarely had I seen such an unconventional yet ideal match between song and image—Cohen’s plaintive but effective vocals, a musical backdrop consisting entirely of plucked guitars and a repetitive but engaging minor-key melody all carrying within them a quietly awestruck wonder. It felt more immediate and intimate than a more traditional, orchestral score would have; it also successfully set a precedent that this would be unlike any movie western I’d ever seen and that I’d never forget this first impression.

As “Stranger Song” becomes associated with McCabe himself, Altman utilizes the film’s two other Cohen songs as themes for specific characters. Ms. Miller (Julie Christie), the earthy, sharp whorehouse madam whom prospector McCabe goes into business with, is paired with “Winter Lady”, a gentler, more wistful but no less melancholic tune than “Stranger Song”, fleshing out the guitars with a lone flute and a soft, celeste-like chime. Meanwhile, the roughhewn, inexperienced women who become Ms. Miller’s initial employees are detailed a sequence that makes ongoing use of “Sisters of Mercy”, which has the most traditional and richest arrangement of the three Cohen songs. Some of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s most striking images accompany the song, in particular a church steeple set against a painterly, glistening sunset.

So powerful is Cohen’s music in McCABE that one wishes Altman would’ve used more of it. Hearing those three songs in the film naturally moved me to return to SONGS and in the process, discover its odd, highly distinctive allure. At least three out of its seven other tracks are now unqualified standards. Likely Cohen’s most recognized song after “Hallelujah”, opener “Suzanne” contains lyrics iconic for their specificity and vividness (“she brings you tea and oranges that come all the way from China”); Nancy Priddy’s background vocals also add texture and a welcome sweetness that Cohen’s disarming but homely croak simply isn’t capable of. “So Long, Marianne” ever-so-slightly rouses up the tempo and features one of Cohen’s catchiest choruses without sacrificing his inimitably sung cadences (“to laugh / and / cry / and / laugh / and / cry a-bout it / all a-gain”). “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” almost subliminally reprises the melody from “Suzanne” but makes a more pointed, whimsical use of Priddy’s vocals as they pop in and out between Cohen’s lead; the arrangement’s also quirkier, the song’s title providing the main hook as it ends on a curious, nagging riff somewhere between a twanged guitar and a jew’s harp.

Two of the album’s remaining four songs are as great as the three McCABE selections. “Master Song” consists of many stanzas set to the same melody repeated for nearly six minutes, but each verse has a new musical wrinkle, gaining momentum from such additions as a muted trumpet, or a blast of strings, or a curlicue organ filigree. Throughout, it conjures a feeling of majesty, not overblown or calling attention to itself, but forever lurking within, omnipresent and exuding wisdom and gravitas. “Stories of the Street” nearly accomplishes the same feat, but with more sustained orchestration, a higher-pitched melody (in which Cohen, though not the most dexterous of singers, acquits himself well enough) and evocative lyrics such as “And if by chance I wake at night and ask you who I am / O take me to the slaughterhouse, I will wait there with the lamb.” As for the other two, less memorable tracks (“Teachers”, “One of us Cannot Be Wrong”), they’re wisely placed at the end. Neither one is a failure, although when Cohen concludes “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” with some woefully off-key wailing (almost as if he’s piss-poor drunk or going insane), you could either find it repulsive and inexplicable and want to say, “Oh, Lenny…” or simply laugh at its audacity—a rare glimpse of Cohen not taking himself too seriously.

Cohen apparently was not pleased with producer John Simon’s orchestral additions here. He would go on to record eleven more albums and few of them sound like this one. Alternately, he’d strip down the arrangements to the barest essentials (SONGS OF LOVE AND HATE), take the complete opposite direction with Phil Spector (DEATH OF A LADIES MAN), entirely revamp his sound and voice again in the 1980s with VARIOUS POSITIONS and the aforementioned I’M YOUR MAN and continue to alter, reduce and refine with age all the way through 2012’s OLD IDEAS. His discography is as rich as the life he’s lived (Sylvie Simmons’ recent biography is essential), but I return most often to this, his first album. The McCABE association is a major reason, but by far not the only one: with SONGS, Cohen arrived fully formed, a talent with few precedents and to be honest, relatively few followers. His lyrics, vocal tones and melodies all made for a sensibility that was entirely his own. We will also find this quality in our next entry which comes from a band born out of a movement it eventually broke away from, stubbornly foraging along its own divergent, less commercial path.

“Stranger Song” / opening credits of McCABE & MS. MILLER:

Top 10 Altman

Earlier this year, I said of BREWSTER MCCLOUD, “On a second viewing, I’m still fond of it even though I hesitate to include it in my top ten Altman films.” Naturally, ever since then I’ve wondered what, in fact, would constitute my top ten Altman films. Having seen a few and trying to think way back to memories of a few more that I haven’t seen in well over ten years, let’s count down the results:

10. THE PLAYER (1992)
One of those I have not seen in over a decade, and one I can imagine seeming a little dated twenty years on. However, this film’s dark, dark Hollywood satire seems so quintessentially Altman that in retrospect I’m flummoxed as to why he didn’t make it earlier in his career. It all may feel a little too self-congratulatory, but it hits the correct, deserved targets.

A lot of Altman has made it to DVD over the past decade; this is one of the few holdouts (along with HEALTH and THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK). After a recent, rare screening at the MFA, I have no trouble calling it a lost classic, although its one weak spot—Ed Graczyk’s sentimental screenplay, adapted from his own play—prevents it from feeling like a true Altman film. Still, as Spielberg brought Kubrick’s ideas to life in A.I., Altman enriches and transcends the material here and gets great, one-of-a-kind performances out of Karen Black, Sandy Denny and a young Kathy Bates. Cher, in her film debut, is also fine but she’d get better.

See, the point of an exercise like this is to either validate or repudiate sweeping generalizations I end up making in my reviews. Undoubtedly, this is a seriously flawed film—comically broad, occasionally ridiculous, its eventual running-out-of-steam best exemplified when one character simply gives up and shoots himself out of the movie. Fortunately, it’s full of just as many magnificent, crazy ideas that bespeak a very particular (and peculiar) vision. It’s unlike any other film and, at times, unlike any other Altman film.

Arguably Altman’s slowest film: a depression-era drama set in the south, inspired by both BONNIE AND CLYDE and THEY LIVE BY NIGHT. Although people commit bank robberies and the two lovably gawky but not overly quirky leads (Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall) fall in love, not much else happens, and that’s kind of the point. The film is more notable for its impressionistic rendering of a specific time and place via a roving camera that’s like a series of old faded photographs coming to life and a multilayered soundtrack of radio broadcasts that expands on how Peter Bogdanovich employed Hank Williams tunes throughout THE LAST PICTURE SHOW.

I saw a film print of this at the Brattle ten years ago, and it may be the ideal way to see it (if you can) since the DVD purportedly changes a lot of the music due to rights issues. I mention this because the music here is essentially a third main character, commenting on the quixotic pursuits of would-be professional gamblers Elliot Gould and George Segal as they hit up casinos from L.A. to Reno. Of course, this shaggy friendship tale is the anti-OCEANS 11 and perhaps the underseen classic in Altman’s oeuvre.

5. NASHVILLE (1975)
Like THE PLAYER, this is the kind of ambitious masterwork you sense Altman was working towards for a such a long time you’re almost surprised that he didn’t get to it sooner. Even if, like me, you’re not a country music fan, the performance scenes (which seem to account for at least one-third of the entire film) fascinate, capturing something distinctly humane and revealing that mere dialogue doesn’t always allow for. Altman plays his cast of 24 like an orchestra so expertly that the great, tragic, triumphant convergence of them all at the finale still packs a punch, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

4. 3 WOMEN (1977)
Alternately, his most pretentious, irritating, mesmerizing and sublime film. That’s another way of saying that not everything in it works—the last 15 minutes, for example, are more WTF than even BREWSTER MCCLOUD. But Shelley Duvall’s fearless performance as an exceptionally self-assured chatty devotee of fashion tips and recipes gleaned from women’s self-help magazines is for the ages, as is Sissy Spacek’s (arguably creepier here than she was in CARRIE one year before). When Woody Allen makes a Bergman film, the result is INTERIORS; when Altman does the same, the result makes Bergman look as normal as Woody Allen.

Leave it to Altman to make a Philip Marlowe picture that not only pisses all over the idea of what that should entail but also gets awfully close to what a Real World Marlowe would be like—especially one living in sleazy, strung-out 1970s Los Angeles. Its mirrored landscapes seem as radical and iconic as the far different ones in the # 1 film on this list and the endless reiterations of the title song approach the fluidity of jazz. Not as much as Gould does, however. Imagine an alternate universe where Duvall won an Academy Award for 3 WOMEN and Gould won one for his Marlowe—a man living and communicating on instinct, exuding a strange (but not sanctimonious) purity in the face of endless, encircling corruption.

2. GOSFORD PARK (2001)
Like NASHVILLE, this employs a massive ensemble delineated by class and hinges upon a murder. Predictably for Altman, he pretty much glosses over the latter and focuses almost entirely on the former’s subtleties, forging a rich, witty, revealing take on an awfully particular culture. Less predictably, he achieves this with a culture (and a country!) he’s never previously explored; his most important film since NASHVILLE, not to mention one of his biggest commercial hits.

1. MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971)
Not much of a surprise if you read this blog and saw my fake Sight & Sound poll ballot a few weeks back. To that, I’ll only add that this beautiful anti-Western made a huge impact on me after my first viewing 14 years ago because I had no expectations for it and none too high an opinion of Westerns, anti or otherwise. That opening image of Warren Beatty riding his horse in the rain to Leonard Cohen’s “Stranger Song” is really all one needs, I think, to determine whether this is your favorite Altman film—if you don’t instantly fall in love, it’s just not gonna happen.


Other Great Altman Films I Could Not Squeeze into this Top Ten: Popeye (no, really!), Cookie’s Fortune, (maybe) A Prairie Home Companion

Altman Film I’d Like Most to See Again for Reassessment: The Company

Unseen Altman I’d Most Like to See: That Cold Day In The Park, A Perfect Couple, HealthSecret Honor, Vincent and Theo

Altman Anyone Can Live Without: Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Quintet, O.C. and Stiggs (I’m guessing–it sits unwatched in my Netflix instant queue).