Leonard Cohen was always a songwriter’s songwriter, an artist whose exquisite body of work will continue to shape countless musicians long after his passing. In this sense, Nick Cave’s response to the singer’s recent death was telling: “For many of us, Leonard Cohen was the greatest songwriter of them all. Utterly unique and impossible to imitate no matter how hard we tried. He will be deeply missed by so many.”
Cave is right. While it’s possible to hear echoes of Cohen in other musicians—Cave happens to be a notable example himself—no one will ever assume Cohen’s mantle. His music came from a place that was too intimate and too personal to belong to anyone else.
Nowadays, many people know the man because of the polished covers of his songs by singers with gentler voices. Not long ago, I was at a songwriter’s night where a young man climbed behind the piano and announced that he was going to play “Hallelujah” by Rufus Wainwright. “Is that right? It is by him, right?” he asked. When no response was forthcoming from the audience, I yelled out “Leonard Cohen!” in a tone that I hoped was informative rather than belligerent. Most people, however, will probably associate “Hallelujah” with Jeff Buckley’s angelic rendition.
Cohen’s own voice, however, was not angelic. A sonorous croon that thinned out to a whispered purr on his final album, his was a voice that many patronizingly describe as an “acquired taste.” The description is understandable but wrong. Like all artists whose distinct voices form an indelible part of their music—think Bob Dylan or Tom Waits—the undeniable power and conviction of Cohen’s music was partly conveyed in his ragged delivery. Listen to a song like “Last Year’s Man” and imagine what would happen to its meaning if it were sung by someone with a pristine voice, and you’ll have a good idea of why Cohen’s vocals were not an expendable feature of his music.Leonard Cohen devoted his career to telling us that, in the midst of human experience, pain is rarely devoid of beauty and beauty is rarely devoid of pain.
With its somber mix of confession and spiritual yearning, the arrival of Leonard Cohen’s latest album, You Want It Darker, left many of us more anxious than grateful. Still wary from David Bowie’s portentous Blackstar, it seemed difficult to ignore the sense that Cohen, like his late flamboyant contemporary, was bidding the world farewell. Even so, when headlines began announcing Cohen’s passing, many of us were shocked. Maybe we were just tired of bad news. Maybe we were just sad to see another great musician go. Or, maybe we recognized that we had just lost a voice we need to hear in these troubled times.
Most of us can remember times when a certain song pierced through all the day’s surrounding noise and demanded our full attention. If you’re a serious music nerd, some of these occasions have probably turned into awkward moments after you’ve shushed anyone insensitive enough to talk over the song you’re trying to hear. But it’s worth it because you know that whatever it is you’re hearing, there’s a good chance it will soon become an integral part of your inner world. It will somehow add to who you are as a person.
I was a college student drinking black coffee on a dilapidated couch in a decrepit old house that should have been condemned rather than serve as my habitat when I first heard Leonard Cohen. I didn’t have to shush anyone, however, because the friend introducing me to this great artist was a musician himself, and he understood that you don’t talk through this music.
The words struck me first, probably because the voice delivering them seemed to occupy an odd interstice between speaking and singing, like a poet with a secret wish to become a lounge singer. “If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn/They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.” These two lines from “Sisters of Mercy”—one of Cohen’s trademark songs—were enough to convince me of Cohen’s stature, as well as his staying power in my life.
It’s not surprising that Leonard Cohen began his career as a poet and a novelist. Most of his lyrics can stand on their own, and many of them deserve to be published—not a distinction that most popular musicians can claim. If it’s not happening already, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that certain hip English professors are including him in their poetry units. From the quiet devastation of “Famous Blue Raincoat” to the scandalous indiscretion of “Chelsea Hotel #2” (allegedly about an encounter with Janis Joplin), Cohen never relinquished his vocation as a writer. It’s only fitting that he’ll continue to be celebrated as one.
Not one to repeat himself, Cohen’s versatility was matched by an intrepid instinct to keep pushing his music further. Like many serious artists, he took risks. The results weren’t always successful. Cohen tended to regard his album Death of a Ladies’ Man as a failure, for instance. Nevertheless, his music remained gloriously inconsistent, each new album promising uncharted territory. Songs from a Room is a long way from New Skin for the Old Ceremony; You Want It Darker is further still.
As you can imagine, selecting the best album from Leonard Cohen’s eclectic catalog is a highly controversial exercise. Rather than join the fray, I’ll simply offer my personal favorite for your consideration. For me, Songs of Love and Hate remains the quintessential Cohen album. I once heard this collection of songs described as “death folk” and that seems right. Few albums have explored a personal breakdown with such clinical precision. “Dress Rehearsal Rag” will certainly go down as one of Cohen’s most harrowing songs:
Just take a look at your body now, there’s nothing much to save
And a bitter voice in the mirror cries, “Hey, Prince, you need a shave.”
Now if you can manage to get your trembling fingers to behave
Why don’t you try unwrapping a stainless steel razor blade?
That’s right, it’s come to this
Yes it’s come to this
And wasn’t it a long way down?
Wasn’t it a strange way down?
But the nadir of this decline is announced with this startling image:
Cover up your face with soap, there
Now you’re Santa Claus.
And you’ve got a gift for anyone.
Who will give you his applause.
Cohen’s reputation of being an uncompromisingly gloomy songwriter is not unearned.
But there are moments of such delicate beauty that continually intrude on this album’s bleak soundscape. The rueful “Famous Blue Raincoat” comes immediately to mind. I still can’t keep my eyes open when I hear Cohen sing the line, “Jane came by with a lock of your hair.” These moments form a counterpoint to the surrounding darkness. They’re small reminders that such refined pain is often disarmingly beautiful, and that this beauty usually comes with a terrible price. You might say that Cohen devoted his career to telling us that, in the midst of human experience, pain is rarely devoid of beauty and beauty is rarely devoid of pain.
There’s a story about Leonard Cohen that is emblematic not only of his career as a songwriter, but also his lasting significance. Marooned at a music festival on the Island of Wight in 1970, the slender folk singer faced a crowd that had been growing steadily more hostile as the day progressed. A flare had ignited during Jimmy Hendrix’s set and Kris Kristofferson had already been booed off the stage. It was two in the morning when Leonard Cohen took the stage. The concert footage speaks for itself.
Cohen held this raucous audience in the palm of his hands for the entire set. No doubt, part of Cohen’s eerie calm can be chalked up to the Mandrax he’d consumed beforehand, but the same cannot be said of the crowd. By all accounts, these people were on the brink of rioting. How could a lilting rendition of “Famous Blue Raincoat” calm their agitated hearts? But it did.
And it still can.
We live in troubled times. There’s an uneasy parallel between our own wounded country and that raging crowd on the Island of Wight all those years ago. Our headlines are full of apocalyptic pronouncements, our streets are filled with unrest, and our future is far from certain. In the midst of this tumultuous season, Cohen’s voice may be the one thing we need to hear, an elegant reminder that we need not stoop to the level of so many around us, that pain can be endured with dignity as well as grace, and that beauty can intrude, even in the most dire of circumstances.