Amphibrachic Speakers

by HRM on October 14, 2011

A Look at Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” by Michael Follow

CohenAfter Leonard Cohen declared bankruptcy, he began appearing in public and offering performances. On October 18th, he is releasing the Complete Studio Albums Collection.

Forty years ago, he released “Famous Blue Raincoat.” The song is about a love triangle between two men and a woman; the speaker’s wife has left him temporarily for another man, but she has since returned. The song is still notable for its meter: amphibrachic tetrameter.

An amphibrach is a foot comprised of a stressed syllable set between two unstressed syllables. In this song, each line has four feet: four amphibrachs. The amphibrachic foot visually represents the topic—but not the subject—of the song: one woman between two men. When you hear the line, the meter sounds lilting and shell shocked, like a voicemail left by a hostage taker, or the hostage.

The song is also notable for the way Cohen uses rhythm to emphasize the meter. The lines are slow and sometimes spoken rather than sung. Sometimes there is complete silence, as the pauses in the instruments and pauses in the lyrics coincide. The pauses, the lengthy unstressed syllables, the sudden stressed syllables, and the slow rhythm, are all part of the speaker’s identity: an emotionally deadened lover, a possible psychopath.

This slow pronunciation, the rhythm, is as important as the meter. If the meter reflects the topic (the lovers’ triangle) then the rhythm suggests the subject (the mentality and identity of the speaker).  Listen to the cover Tori Amos recorded over 20 years later. She follows the same lilting amphibrachic tetrameter, but speeds the rhythm and adds elaborate flourishes, removing the speaker’s personality from the song. A line that takes almost ten seconds for Cohen to read takes less than five seconds for Amos to sing. In Amos’s version, the speaker is not deadened: he’s dead.  In Cohen’s version, the speaker is a man writing a letter to his wife’s ex-lover; in Amos’s version, the speaker is Tori Amos.

Which is another way of saying that Cohen’s best tribute is his tribute to himself: the Collection released today—and not the album recorded in the 90s with Amos.

The subject in the original version is so real that the speaker’s identity is separate from Cohen’s, even when Cohen signed the song lyrics himself.

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