Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” is a strange, haunting thing. Largely carried by Cohen’s monotone, yet slightly lilting voice and sparse guitar accompaniment, the song evokes a dark, ambiguous feeling. The angelic backing vocals and seraphic strings that periodically emerge give the song a heavenly relief – a bittersweet release of giving yourself into a formless and transient love. A joy you know is fleeting.
What makes Nina Simone’s rendition so interesting is her arrangement’s total embrace of the beauty of this strange affair. Light and floating — with the piano, drums, guitar and Nina’s free-flowing vocals all working in perfect unison to give the song a brightness and buoyancy. It’s a spirited and optimistic rendition, all while adding further mystique, and allure, to Cohen’s words.
“And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
She gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover”
A mysterious song about a mysterious lover, “Suzanne” evokes the kind of romance that you do not, and cannot, fully understand, yet one you allow yourself be taken away by, no matter how temporary, or sorrowful. It is Simone’s alternate version, found on the 2012 reissue of her 1969 lp To Love Somebody, that fully embodies this sentiment. Here, the arrangement is sparse: some cloudy, fluttering piano, a subtle, metronomic drumbeat, and a meandering, noodling groove. Simone sings slower and, more importantly, deeper. She’s not approaching the subject so freely and brightly in this performance.
That’s not to say the version is heavy or dark, but rather more thoughtful, aged even. At one point, you can hear her chair creaking. The consequences, and therefore the ending, are being considered here, which lends the performance a more nuanced grace than previous. Simone’s phrasing of “Now Suzanne / takes your hand” is confident and calculated, emphasizing those final syllables – the gesture is felt more deeply. Even the way she false starts the line “That you have no love to give her” suggests a soul that has been stirred, a confidence shaken. She changes the line from “You know that you can trust her” to “You think maybe you can trust her.” Still sweeping us away, we are still traveling blindly, being touched by her mind, but we’re more aware of what’s at stake.
“There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
They will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror”
When Nina sings these words this time, they are still mystifying – the ambiguity still present – but they are adjoined by a lingering melancholy and a feeling of nostalgia. Suzanne is the hero in the seaweed, washing ashore just for a moment, long enough to capture our heart, before drifting back out to sea. words / c depasquale