In the history of the rather broad genre of music often considered folk or “singer-songwriter,” whatever that actually means, Leonard Cohen probably has one of the most fascinating and curious careers. Generally speaking, he is one of the more interesting celebrity figures for his reclusive and elusive nature that turned into a larger-than-life personality. But for whatever reason, his name doesn’t carry the same weight as the other leading folk figure, Bob Dylan, even though Cohen is arguably a far more poetic and certainly more literary songwriter. Whereas Dylan is played-out amongst twenty-somethings (nobody really needs to hear his songs anymore; we’ve heard them all plenty of times), Cohen is underplayed. On the strength of his first four albums alone, The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968), Songs from a Room (1969), Songs of Love and Hate (1971), and New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), he could be considered one of the greatest songwriters out there. These recordings are more or less conservative from a musical (though by no means lyrical) standpoint – though that is not to say that each doesn’t have its own distinct sound.
However, beginning with the Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977) all the way up to his most recent studio album, Dear Heather (2004), Cohen has produced a body of work that is extremely varied, diverse, cynical, depressing, and appropriately influenced by musical trends.
Leonard Cohen grew up in Montreal in a cultured, middle-class family. At McGill he studied literature and achieved some notoriety there as a poet. Afterwards, he kicked around New York City for a while, where he also studied at Columbia. During these years and while living in Greece, he published fiction and poetry to much acclaim, and also wrote the famous song, “Suzanne,” which Judy Collins covered. Then, in 1968 – at the age of 34 – he released The Songs of Leonard Cohen. This album is full of classics, including “Suzanne,” “So Long, Marianne,” “The Sisters of Mercy,” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” All of these songs, particularly “Suzanne,” are widely covered.
The Songs of Leonard Cohen might be considered somewhat of an anomaly for its time, because the Bob Dylan folk craze had already ended, and Dylan had radically changed his sound a few years before and pissed off a lot of his loyal fans. Not only that, Cohen was not a part of the musical community and was already older than than his contemporaries (he is seven years Dylan’s senior). Cohen’s outsider status is a theme of his career, and he remains a poet and author who writes music that seems to exist in its own space, slightly or radically removed from popular music and other folk music.
Songs from a Room, his follow-up to The Songs of Leonard Cohen, is often considered inferior to his debut, but it does include the classic “Bird on a Wire.” The production is particularly sparse and features a twangy jew-harp. Around the same time, Cohen also appeared at the famous Isle of Wight concert in 1970, where he appeared alongside Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, among others. Here, Cohen stuck a very interesting appearance; austere and almost timid. His performance captures dark, despairing tone of the song.
Songs of Love and Hate easily outdoes Songs from a Room, and unlike the earlier albums, it features longer songs with lyrics that more closely resemble literature – “Famous Blue Raincoat,” for example, is actually a letter addressed to someone about a tumultuous love affair. This song became somewhat of a classic, and is covered by many, perhaps most famously Jennifer Warnes, who would become Cohen’s back up singer and released an album of covers called Famous Blue Raincoat (1987.) In addition, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds did a notable cover of “Avalanche” on From Her to Eternity (1984) – Cave has covered many Cohen songs and is a great admirer of his work, as evinced in interviews featured in the recent documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005).
New Skin for the Old Ceremony was Cohen’s most musically adventurous album to date, and includes the sombre classic, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” which was about his love affair with Janis Joplin when he was living in the Chelsea Hotel with her and other personalities from the sixties. On this album, Cohen comes the closest thus far to actual pop songs, for example, the opening track “Is This What You Wanted” and “Lover Lover Lover.”
Then, in 1977, Cohen made his most controversial album, Death of Ladies’ Man. Produced by the legendary and infamous Phil Spector, it put off many of Cohen’s fans because some felt that its wall-of-sound production was excessive. At the time, it is understandable that its lush production and general opulence might have turned some off, especially those used to a more conservative sound. Lyrically, although its portrait of love and sexuality is slightly more up-front than previous albums (one track is titled, “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On”), if one looks back at previous Cohen songs, it is not any more explicit or scandalous (after all, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” features the line, “giving me head on the unmade bed”).
In retrospect, Death of a Ladies’ Man is a fascinating, flawed masterpiece. It might be overproduced, but it is bold and combines literary lyrics writing with extravagant music. It is the first example of Cohen really going out on a limb and experimenting with new forms – and it is also far more out of touch with the musical trends at the time than any of the prior albums. That is to say that it’s beautifully out of touch. It is as if Cohen intentionally didn’t want to “get it,” and did whatever the fuck he wanted. Nonetheless, Ladies’ Man is actually Cohen’s least favorite album, and he publicly admitted that he saw it as a failure.
Cohen’s next two albums toned down their production. Recent Songs (1979) and Various Positions (1985) – the latter of which ought to be lauded just for its title – were not particularly successful. However, Various Positions is musically adventurous, though not extravagant. “Dance Me to the End of Love” is a catchy waltz, and several songs have a country sound. And, of course, it features the most famous Cohen song of all time, “Hallelujah.” Few people seem to realize that Cohen wrote this song; they either attribute it to Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright. I do not understand what was going through the makers of Shrek when they decided to feature this song in their movie, because not only is it extremely depressing and dark, it is also very sexual, featuring lines such as “And remember when I moved in you?”
For our current generation, no Cohen album is more culturally and socially salient than his ’80s opus, I’m Your Man (1988). In every sense, the album is a radical leap from anything that came before. It’s filled with cheesy laser sounds and equally cheesy back-up vocals. It is as if Cohen, at the age of 54, wanted to upgrade his sounds and write songs about the culture of the ’80s, but being an outsider, didn’t quite get the sound down. But it doesn’t matter. The sometimes tiny casio sounds of I’m Your Man fit perfectly with the albums lyrics. Even without the lyrics, the sonic textures of I’m Your Man are like an ironic comment on the sounds of the 80s, as exemplified by a song like Van Halen’s “Jump.”
The opening track, “First, We Take Manhattan,” could be about our generation, except perhaps it ought to be called, “First, We Take Brooklyn…Then We Take Tokyo.”
This song in particular seems to comment on a vapid culture running on psychopharmaceuticals and diet pills…the modern substitution might be Adderall or Concerta. Other ’80s artists certainly provided great insight into the times – for example, Gary Numan wrote songs like “Are Friends Electric?” and “M.E., I Disconnect from You” – but Cohen’s position as a far older outsider with a literary background (he continues to publish poetry) gave him a unique perspective. Memorable lines from the album include, “I don’t like those drugs that keep you thin,” “Everybody knows that you live forever / when you’ve done a line or two” and “Jazz Police are paid by J. Paul Getty” – the last of which comes from the song “Jazz Police,” which without knowledge of its obscure cultural references, is completely elusive and almost insufferably corny (a quick Google search reveals that J. Paul Getty was a wealthy industrialist and art collector).
Aside from its more impersonal cultural commentary (although with Leonard Cohen it’s always very personal), I’m Your Man does feature more traditional songs about love and loss, such as “Tower of Song,” which includes the following lines: “I loved you, I loved you way back when / And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed / but I feel so close to everything that we lost. / We’ll never, we’ll never have to lose it again.”
I’m Your Man is surely the reason why Leonard Cohen should be far more famous with twenty-somethings than he is, and why he should have the kind of twenty-something street cred that, say, Daniel Johnston has. But if that isn’t enough, his follow up album, The Future (1992), has lines like, “Give me crack, anal sex.”
After The Future, Cohen did not record anything for over eight years; during this time he became a Buddhist monk in a California monastery. After this long absence, he released Ten New Songs (2001), followed by the similar sounding album, Dear Heather. Both of these utilize to a great extent electric keyboards, female back-up singers, and in general a smooth and lavish production. Both of them, especially the latter, seem to show that Cohen’s ego had grown to gigantic proportions; in his songwriting there’s an incredible consciousness of his own fame and Don-Juan like tendencies. The song “Because Of” from Dear Heather explains why women have been “exceptionally kind” to Cohen and his old age at that point (he was 70), and the music video features young attractive women jumping on a bed. The song seems to be at once incredibly egotistical and self-effacing for its complete honestly.
Dear Heather is Cohen’s last studio album to date; he continued to tour and collaborated with Philip Glass on an album of spoken word entitled Phillip Glass: Book of Longing (2006).
Leonard Cohen is one of our most prolific songwriters, with a long and varied career. While his early work is arguably better than his work from the ’80s and beyond, it is this latter half of his discography that is underrated and fitting for the 2000s in a nearly uncanny, frightening way.