Leonard Cohen: 10 of the best
From his 1967 debut album to last year’s Popular Problems, here’s the pick of the great man’s career. Think we’ve missed out on something great? Let us know in the comments
Too clever for his own good, and certainly far too clever for anybody else’s: that was the sniffy verdict on Leonard Cohen’s brief stint as a highfalutin novelist. He was already an acclaimed poet, but his first piece of long-form fiction, 1963’s The Favourite Game, made little impact. And 1966’s follow-up Beautiful Losers was both puzzling, with its complex symbolism, and shocking, with its lewd depictions of grubby sex. Songs, though, made all the difference. His debut LP, Songs of Leonard Cohen, reinvented him as a devilish bard whose modern hymns of love, lust, faith and betrayal had far more life than they’d ever have as just ink on a page. Suzanne was first published as a poem in 1966, but Cohen’s recorded version, with its soft acoustic guitar cushioning his warm, clipped voice, is far more special. It’s a love song, but love with limits: his muse Suzanne Verdal was dating someone else, and so all he has to feed off are platonic scraps. Her habit of feeding him “tea and oranges that come all the way from China”, then, is mythologised into a spiritual ritual; their strolls near the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel in Montréal are divine pilgrimages that link them to the old sailors who’d be blessed at the church before braving the sea. And although it’s all a beautiful lie, it’s more beautiful than the truth. “You touched her perfect body with your mind,” sighs Cohen, and though there’s longing in his voice there’s contentment too – because he knows that consummating the relationship would just stain its purity.
When Cohen first met Marianne Jensen, on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, he was smitten. He swore she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met and the pair spent much of the decade bound together. It’s fitting that So Long, Marianne is one of his most gorgeous songs, with its winsome whistle-while-you-work melody, but there’s conflict, too. Cohen is stuck in a loop: a man who’s in love with his partner but also in love with his own wanderlust. And so his doubt erodes what he’s already got, until his eye is wandering and he’s increasingly “curious” about exploring other, newer pleasures. “I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web / Is fastening my ankle to a stone,” he cries, aware that he’s being sunk, rather than saved, by this relationship; it’s the same, too, when he remembers how she “Held on to me like a crucifix” – he’s torn between feeling smitten and smothered. And then there’s the chorus, which sums up the whole merry-go-round: “It’s time we began / To laugh and cry and laugh about it all again.” By the time he realises what he’s got, she’s already gone.
Leonard Cohen isn’t always to be trusted. There are times when listening to his songs feels like being granted an intimate audience with Loki: you have to be cautious, because you never know when he’ll start pulling your strings. Suzanne is loaded with secret desire; So Long, Marianne sags with doubt; things are seldom what they seem. But there are rare occasions when everything is wonderfully transparent. And there’s no Cohen song as straightforward as Bird on the Wire, the highpoint of 1969’s Songs from a Room. It’s another song inspired by Jensen, who has claimed she rescued Cohen from depression by handing him a guitar and goading him into writing again. But unlike So Long, Marianne, it’s a simple mea culpa; a redemption manifesto in which Cohen asks for forgiveness and resolves to be better. There’s defiance in his opening lines, when he insists “I have tried in my way to be free” over the gentlest of acoustic guitars, but then he stumbles and falls his way into the chorus – and it’s heartbreaking, because his voice can’t quite get there: the strings rise up and up but his voice, thin and reedy, isn’t capable of matching that same soar. Instead, he has to croak: “If I have been unkind I hope that you can just let it go by.” He’s never sounded so brave.
No Cohen album will drain you like Songs of Love and Hate. Released in 1971, it’s probably his most claustrophobic work, and so emotionally oppressive that it’s exhausting: songs that see-saw from the flaming intensity of Joan of Arc to the angry poison of Avalanche. Famous Blue Raincoat, though, has a foot in both camps. It’s a song of love and hate, of regret and remorse. Cohen’s a cuckold and is writing a letter to the man who temporarily stole his sweetheart, only he seems stuck. “It’s four in the morning, the end of December / I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better / New York is cold, but I like where I’m living,” he rambles, dancing aimlessly around the extra-marital elephant in the room. When he finally gets into the guts of it all, it’s darkly beautiful: the music swells dangerously and seductively, and Cohen sadly recalls the moment he realised he’d been cheated, sadly murmuring: “You treated my woman to a flake of your life / And when she came back, she was nobody’s wife.” What really lingers, though, is just how odd the dynamic is between each point in this strange love triangle; the way Cohen seems strangely grateful for the whole horrible mess. “Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes,” he sings before signing off. “I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.” A strange, disturbing snapshot into the sadly squalid lives of others.
The secret to Cohen’s longevity is that he looks forward. He’s always shedding old skins and donning new disguises. 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony found him barrelling towards a more full-blooded sound, fleshing out the tenderness of songs like Chelsea Hotel No 2. By 1977’s Death of a Ladies Man he was hamming it up with Phil Spector, rolling in the sleazy, mucky schlock of the hilariously rude Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On. With 1984’s Various Positions, he made another leap, this time into synthesiser soundscapes. Dance Me to the End of Love is one of his most moving beasts: a ghoulish death-waltz that was composed with a cheap Casio synth, and was inspired by a tale he’d heard of prisoners at concentration camps who were forced into playing music to soundtrack their fellow detainees being led to the crematorium. He’s since claimed that the genesis isn’t important, and that there’s a wider picture at work – that it’s a general meditation on love and surrender. But that backstory can’t help but dirty the whole thing. And so, while the jazzy melody hums and parps along like some long-lost wedding disco floor-filler, all shambolic charm and chutzpah, the strings throb with danger and menace, too. “Dance me to the end of your beauty with a burning violin / Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered in,” he purrs, and it’s deadly: something that sounds so sweet and seductive is gruesomely disturbing instead.
Writing Hallelujah turned Cohen into a pitiful figure who, he’d later reveal, ended up slumped on the floor of New York’s Royalton hotel wearing only his pants as he scribbled in notebooks and banged his head on the carpet. He thought he’d never finish it, and wrote 80-odd verses before finally whittling it down. His record company listened, and told him it wasn’t good enough for release. He won the battle, though, and since then Hallelujah has grown into a monster. It’s been covered more than 300 times, by everyone from Jeff Buckley and John Cale to kd Lang and Alexandra Burke, and it’s sold at least 5m copies in all its different versions. And yet there’s still something special about the original. It’s not the most popular or polished, but it’s arguably the most moving. If Hallelujah is ultimately a hymn to being broken – about the ways people seek salvation – then no one sounds as fractured or browbeaten as Cohen. His tired, weary baritone chews over biblical allusions about lost faith and fleeting redemption, mixing religious lifelines with sexual healing and relationship battle-scars. It would take a scholar to analyse each line in depth – to break down those nods to King David, Samson and the rest – but it’s the ending that’s most striking of all, when everything’s laid bare and all Cohen has left is rueful pride. “Even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah,” he vows, broken but not fully bowed.
A sleazy, slithery pleasure in which Cohen thumbs his nose at any notion of elder statesman dignity and, at the age of 54, vows to abase himself just for a whiff of new flesh. The title track of his 1988 album of the same name, it’s built around a rinky-dink synth that creeps with dirty lust and teeters along a good-taste tightrope between devotion and deviancy throughout. On the one hand, he’s vowing to stand by his beloved no matter what; on the other, he’s just desperate to feed on her body. Just witness the opening few lines, with the faint hint of kinky S&M wishes lurking beneath the syrupy sentiment. “If you want a lover / I’ll do anything you ask me to,” he pants. “And if you want another kind of love / I’ll wear a mask for you.” He doesn’t stop there, either. “If you want a doctor / I’ll examine every inch of you,” he continues, until he’s clawing and pawing so hard that he can’t stop himself from dropping animal references everywhere. “The beast won’t go to sleep,” he pleads, before rasping: “I’d howl at your beauty / Like a dog in heat.” A magnificently sly come-on, from start to finish.
Some of Cohen’s greatest compositions have been sparked by muses: songs that were jerked into being by romances, dalliances and notches on his belt. But here, on the mightiest of them all, he isn’t inspired by a mere mortal. Tower of Song is Cohen’s love-letter to his craft, where he equates chasing the gift of poetry to being trapped in a nightmarish penitentiary. This, he says, is the price he pays for creativity, and it’s a bleak old place to live; years spent stuck in a decrepit housing block, mooning around a scabby flat where he’s kept awake by noisy neighbours as the wheezy din of Hank Williams “coughing all night long a hundred floors above,” rattles down through the floorboards. “My friends are gone and my hair is grey,” he grumbles. “I ache in the places where I used to play.” But there’s a dowdy magic, too, and the brilliance comes from just how wryly ramshackle the whole thing is: that lazy rhumba beat; those sweet-but-downbeat “doo-dop” backing vocals; the way that Cohen deadpans in his grizzled, Marmite-like vocal: “I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” Even at the end, when he’s still undoing the gilded myth of creative inspiration, you can feel the love in his voice. “I’m just paying my rent every day, in the Tower of Song,” he drawls, and the message is clear: this is hard graft, a tough gig and a never-ending lesson, and that’s why it’s such a joy. That’s why he’s still sweating his guts out to get it right.
Given his reputation as a master of misery, it’s small wonder that Cohen is a dab hand at apocalyptic horror. The outstanding cold blast of Euro synthpop on First We Take Manhattan is one of his iciest ever, with Cohen greedily eyeing world domination like a Bond villain. He’s similarly bleak on The Future, the title track of his 1992 album – only this time there’s no struggle for power, just moral decay and the rise of the worst of man. It brings to mind Cormac McCarthy’s end-of-the-world novel The Road, published over a decade later, in the warped ruins of it all; how Cohen, over the slinky and rolling riff, talks of the “blizzard of the world” that’s destroying all in its path, warns ominously how “things are going to slide”, sneers at the wannabe poets “tryin’ to sound like Charles Manson” and babbles about faded memories of seeing “nations rise and fall / I’ve heard their stories, heard them all”. But what really makes it tick is how much he’s enjoying being the nihilistic fly in the ointment. “Give me crack and anal sex!” he barks. “Give me back the Berlin Wall / Give me Stalin and St Paul.” Terrible, terrifying fun.
If it wasn’t for the disappearance of his money, it’s likely that 2004’s half-arsed Dear Heather would have been a sluggish full-stop on Cohen’s career. Not long after, though, his former manager Kelley Lynchwas accused of swindling him out of $5m, and while the lawyers unravelled the whole thing, Cohen was forced to go back out to work again to make ends meet. Since the financial wrangles began, he’s played a bucketload of live dates; released the fantastic studio albums Old Ideas(2012) and Popular Problems (2014); and will put out a new collection of rarities, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, later this month. It’s a renaissance born of needs-must pragmatism rather than divine spontaneity, but really, it doesn’t matter: it’s just wonderful to hear him with the bit between his teeth again. Almost Like the Blues, from Popular Problems, finds his voice transformed into a ravaged and menacing whisper. He ditches his crutch of rickety keyboards and synths, too, in favour of skeletal, spooky hand-percussion and sparse, jazzy piano, as he turns away in horror from global atrocities: “I saw some people starving / There was murder, there was rape / Their villages were burning / They were trying to escape.” So far, so earnest – but then he throws in a the most evil of curveballs. “There’s torture and there’s killing,” he croaks selfishly. “And there’s all my bad reviews.” Even now, at 80 years old and forced back in the studio by necessity, he’s still able to keep you dancing awkwardly on your toes.