There’s just no getting around it: writing about Leonard Cohen is an intimidating proposition. Trying to put into words the magic of Cohen’s art is like trying to play a guitar solo about Jimi Hendrix. The most celebrated and identifiably literary figure in all of rock and roll, Cohen has, with his music, permitted us a glimpse into the mind of one of the most astute and beloved communicators of the human condition since Baudelaire or Rimbaud.
By the time Cohen released his first album, 1967’s Songs Of Leonard Cohen, he was already 33 years old and a published poet and novelist of some repute in his native Canada. At an age when most careers in music are (or should be) drawing to conclusions both tragic and temporal, Cohen was just getting started. Over the years his reputation as a singer and songwriter would eclipse that of his reputation as a poet, though Cohen actively published books throughout his four decades of music making.
Cohen is an irresistibly compelling character; no rock and roll sage has so ably served two masters. Contrast Cohen’s Jekyl — erudite, monastic, earnest — with his Hyde — lecherous, cruel, hedonistic. Father, philanderer, or malcontent, he’s your man. His lyrics are a series of diamond-flashes, full of malevolence, veracity, and moral passion, as likely to be threaded with Christian allegory as they are to contain allusions to blowjobs and orgies.
But great poetry alone does not necessarily make for great music, and Cohen is no mere poet. While it would be difficult to imagine a person who is not in some way already amenable to the charms of rhythmic verse getting much out of his music, Cohen’s keen ear for melody and arrangement is as deft as his eye for sparkling detail. His always ancient-sounding voice has transformed over the years from a yearning, spellbinding tenor to a dispassionate rattle, like a teacup being gently dragged over cement. If deep and private engagement with Leonard Cohen’s music has never made you cry, your blood type may very well be ‘ice water.’
The first three Leonard Cohen albums, like the first four Velvet Underground albums, are very nearly perfect. He could have stopped at 1970’s brilliant Songs Of Love And Hate and earned a place alongside Nick Drake and Townes Van Zandt among the sadsack hipster elite, but like most great artists of the 20th century, Cohen was a maverick, a risk taker of the highest order, and was never content to rest on his laurels as some earnest godfather of goth. He might have merely gone down in history as the French Canadian perv who wrote folk songs about erections and scalpels and raincoats and Joan of Arc, but his grasp exceeded such paltry distinctions. The ensuing decades saw the mercurial Cohen spending five years in seclusion at a monastery becoming an ordained monk, discovering the wonders of drum machines and MIDI programming, and catastrophically collaborating with legendary lunatic and firearms enthusiast Phil Spector, among other feats.
If the following list is a little light on Cohen’s later music, this is more a testament to the magisterial greatness of his early work than a rejection of latter-day masterpieces like “Because Of” and “Alexandra Leaving.” Many readers will balk at the exclusion of “Hallelujah,” a song that has taken on legendary status mostly due to its popularity in coffeehouses, college campuses, and American Idol, the result of an admittedly pretty good cover by the late Jeff Buckley and a better one by John Cale, among far too many others. The ubiquity of the tune has, over the years, lent it an undue reputation as a Cohen masterwork. It has this in common with the oft-covered “Suzanne,” another song many will claim has been omitted from this list egregiously. Let’s just say that this is merely a Leonard Cohen top 10, and there are about forty songs tied for No. 11.
To declare oneself a songwriter — or even an appreciator of songs — while remaining unaware of even the most minor of Cohen’s work is a bit like declaring oneself a chef having never successfully scrambled an egg. The devilishly debonair Buddhist Canadian Jew with the voice that sighs eternally has written some of the most beautifully melancholic and affecting songs in the history of recorded music. Here are 10 of them.
10. “Tower Of Song” from I’m Your Man (1988)
Any writer who has ever pored over a verb choice, any poet who has ever spent an entire evening excruciating over the minutiae of a simile, owes it to him or herself to listen to the magnificent “Tower Of Song” and be reminded that even the greats are occasionally burdened by the mutation that is the creative muse. Over an unhurried rhumba that sounds vaguely like a Casio preset, and female background vocals of the ‘shoop-de-doop’ and ‘doo-run-run’ variety, this tale of martyrdom, madness, and rime is full of wan admonishments that convey — often within the same line — both the blessing and the curse of artistic creation’s binge and purge.
9. “Death Of A Ladies Man” from Death Of A Ladies Man (1977)
Cohen has few epics, but this one is remarkable not only for its scope but for its bathos and the unlikely circumstances from whence it came. The title track to Cohen’s 1977 collaboration with producer and co-writer Phil Spector — a mismatch if ever there was one, even on paper — “Death Of A Ladies Man” is all poise and brio, a ludicrously loveable (or is that loveably ludicrous?) aberration that, at nine minutes and change, is not an easy song to love. Though disowned by its creators, Death Of A Ladies Man isn’t near the catastrophe it is often made out to be. It’s also the album on which Cohen’s trademark sense of humor really starts to develop — if the previous four albums were occasionally too plaintive or despondent for some, this seductive Nilsson-esque title track of gender confusion, bitterness, and spite belies an affinity for the comically profane that would become something of a Cohen trademark hereafter. “Death Of A Ladies Man” is an essential chip in the Leonard Cohen mosaic.
8. “Bird On A Wire” from Songs From A Room 1969
Written as a simple country song, Kris Kristofferson famously claimed that the opening lines of “Bird On A Wire” — “Like a bird on a wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free” — would serve as his own epitaph. Cohen himself described the song as “a Bohemian ‘My Way,'” which really ought to be the final word on the subject. The song is featured on 1969’s excellent Songs From A Room, the first of the two ‘Bob Johnston’ LPs, (the even better Songs of Love And Hate followed a year later), so nicknamed for producer Johnston, who would preside over Cohen’s greatest work, and also join Cohen’s band, playing piano and organ. Over doleful strings, slowly picked acoustic guitar, and the ever-present jaw harp, Cohen, in just several verses, conveys a hoped-for redemption with a solemnity so true, one wonders how the witches of Salem might have fared if only they’d had it as testimony.
7. “Everybody Knows” from I’m Your Man (1988)
“Everybody Knows” is sung as a series of somber revelations on mortality over a Fairlight-assisted, explicitly Spanish-sounding musical accompaniment. Written with collaborator Sharon Robinson, the song featured prominently in the hit 1990 movie Pump Up The Volume and as a result has become one of Cohen’s deservedly best-known songs. The tense arrangement rises to meet Cohen’s cynically resigned voice, which whispers such gems as “Everybody knows that the war is over / Everybody knows that the good guys lost.” Indeed.
6. “Who By Fire” from Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967)
If you invited Cohen over to dinner and asked him to say grace, you might get “Who By Fire.” Based on a Yom Kippur prayer of atonement, “Who By Fire” is a deceptively simple song of earthly contrasts and the rumination on deliverance. The lyrics seem to ask, “Which of your loved ones will be killed in a car accident? By disease? Who will die peacefully in their sleep and whose life will be curtailed by misadventure?” It is one of Cohen’s more direct songs, albeit one that, by design, asks more questions than it answers.
5. “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” from Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Featuring Cohen’s distinctive classical nylon string guitar, which he began playing after befriending a flamenco guitarist, “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” is one of the most tender breakup songs ever written. Three songs from this debut album were featured in Robert Altman’s classic film McCabe And Mrs. Miller, endearing the album to an audience beyond collectors of chapbooks and folk records, but “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” is the album’s crown jewel. A sort of cousin to Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” is a song of a marked relationship not doomed by emotional estrangement but by circumstance, a song that chooses to cherish rather than regret. It’ll choke you up.
4. “So Long, Marianne” from Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Even a clamorous, melodramatic hack job by producer John Simon can’t diminish the pleasures of this perfect song. Though Columbia’s John Hammon was slated to produce Cohen’s first album, the job was delegated at the last minute to the unimaginative Simon, whose heavy hand dulls the impact of the otherwise extraordinary debut (though, it should be noted, Simon may not be completely to blame — the strident and saccharine background vocals foreshadow the girl-group harmonies that Cohen would favor throughout his career). Inspired by Cohen’s then-lover Marianne Jensen (later Marianne Ihlen, who would also be immortalized around this time in an eponymous song by folk singer David Blue, who, from the sounds of it, didn’t think much of Cohen), “So Long, Marianne” is a choppy waltz detailing a different kind of doomed romance, one resulting from the singer’s refusal to settle down and be monogamous. The result of a thousand mamas telling a thousand hippie sons they ‘better shop around’ — “You left when I told you I was curious / I never told you I was brave” — “So Long, Marianne” is “Love The One You’re With” for the free spirit with an actual working brain.
3. “I’m Your Man” from I’m Your Man (1988)
“I’m Your Man” is the rare love song that manages to equally convey sweetness and sexiness, a song for both the reception and the honeymoon, and perhaps even some of the calamities that will follow. For this and more, it is one of the greatest love songs ever written. Written during a crisis of creative identity, after which Cohen resolved to use less flowery and more direct language, “I’m Your Man” is the title track of an album drenched in MIDI arrangements and drum machines (anathema to ‘serious’ musicians — what a joyless lot they are!) that probably sounded dated by the time the masters tapes were delivered to the record label. No matter — the synthetic-sounding arrangements provide the ideal bedrock for Cohen’s most beautiful songs in years, the title track in particular, laying the groundwork for similarly intrepid career gambles like Destroyer’s oblique Your Blues and Will Oldham’s icy Arise, Therefore.
2. “Famous Blue Raincoat” from Songs Of Love And Hate (1971)
Ambiguous and mysterious, “Famous Blue Raincoat” is, in many ways, Cohen’s signature song, maybe the first Leonard Cohen song you play for some lucky someone who has not yet been exposed to the man’s music. The epistolary tune even ends with a signature — “Sincerely, L. Cohen” — lending the work a hauntingly autobiographical tinge that justifies the various (and exhausting) speculations on the song’s true meaning. “Famous Blue Raincoat” is ostensibly written in the wake of a lover’s triangle, though one of my favorite interpretations of it involves the idea that Cohen is writing a letter to himself — the raincoat and the lock of hair both his own. Each time you hear “Famous Blue Raincoat,” you understand less but want to know more. It’s a song that remains with you after it has stopped playing, and forever after.
1. “Avalanche” from Songs Of Love And Hate (1971)
Taken from his poem “I Stepped Into An Avalanche” (though altered and edited considerably), “Avalanche” is Cohen’s examination of self-loathing and the pain that depression inflicts on others. It is the quintessential song on the aptly titled album Songs Of Love And Hate because it passes both of those perennial checkpoints, and is also a quintessential Leonard Cohen song for this same reason. “Avalanche” is not a song you hear so much as feel. The cataleptic narrator — at once the personification and caricature of disorder — writhes and wonders at the suffocating dread he sees as he simultaneously destroys everything around him. This one should come with a warning label. Morrissey, Robert Smith, Trent Reznor, Nick Cave — eat your cold, cold hearts out.