Culture / Music

Leonard Cohen: a late-arriving listener’s guide

2016 saw the demise of many a musical legend. The passings-away of artists such as David Bowie, Prince and George Michael, the works of each of whom have featured prominently in recent popular culture, prompted vast outpourings of public grief. The departure which had the biggest impact on me, however, was that of Leonard Cohen. This wasn’t because I had previously been a particularly avid fan – prior to his death in November I’d listened to a lot more Bowie and Prince than Cohen. Rather, it was only upon hearing of Cohen’s death that I first felt curious enough to download a few of his albums in order to see what all the fuss was about. As you may by now have guessed, the couple of months that have followed have seen me become deeply fond of the man and his music, the musical diversity and emotional complexity of which have enriched my life even while making me belatedly lament his passing.

The first Cohen album I checked out was his 1967 debut, the appropriately titled Songs of Leonard Cohen. SoLC is a collection of delicate and touching folk songs, with my particular favourites the sublime Suzanne and the tender Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye. The sweet and stirring So Long, Marianne is also a stand-out. A more general feature of this album which I enjoy is the poetic and often intensely personal nature of the lyrics. Prior to hearing this record, my main exposure to 1960s folk had been the early work of Bob Dylan. While Dylan’s lyrics are masterful, Dylan’s propensity towards the wild and the stream-of-consciousness means, for better or for worse, that searching for a ‘true’ intended meaning in his words is often a somewhat futile pursuit. Cohen, meanwhile, a poet and novelist before he was a songwriter, was known for spending copious amounts of time crafting his lyrics. When we listen to his songs, then, we can feel sure that Cohen is trying convey to us something, even if his intended meaning is wilfully obscured or is unapparent at first listen. For some reason, I find this kind of comforting.

After this, I skipped forward 21 years and six albums and downloaded 1988’s I’m Your Man. Mainly this was out of curiosity, as I had heard that the album was not only one of his most loved but also represented a stylistic leap in his work. As soon as we hear the synthesised intro to the album’s disco-influenced opening track, First We Take Manhattan, it is clear that we are indeed dealing with a very different beast to his previous folk-oriented works. First We Take Manhattan, described by Cohen as his “terrorist song”, is one of my personal highlights, with its compulsive beat and catchy chorus inviting the listener to share in the zeal of the song’s deranged and probably dangerous narrator. In addition to this, the album’s title track has fast ascended to the ranks of my all-time favourite songs. The song is at once playful, witty and deeply heartfelt, with its lyrics managing to maintain a somewhat sardonic detachment while also expressing Cohen’s clear devotion to his former lover. Overall, this is a brilliant and enthralling record, at turns ominous, funny, danceable and sensual. If you only listen to one Cohen album, I’d be inclined to suggest this be it.

Finally, I decided to explore Cohen’s latest work, namely the albums Popular Problems and You Want It Darker released in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Usually I’m (perhaps unfairly) sceptical of work released in the twilight of an artist’s career, probably just because most of my favourite pieces of music happen to have been made by people in their twenties or thirties. However, I don’t think I’m being blinded by sentimentality when I say that in my opinion these albums are up there with the best works of Cohen’s life as a whole, with the changes in style and mood they represent reflecting the spiritual advances Cohen underwent in the last two decades or so of his life. While the themes of these God and death-infused albums are no less dark than the foreboding geo-political warnings of, say, 1992’s The Future, Cohen’s persona on Popular Problems and You Want It Darker feels to me less like that of the doom-laden prophet than that of the wise-cracking old sage. Both of these records are replete with wonderful moments, but the title track of You Want It Darker seems particularly likely to be remembered as a highlight of Cohen’s catalogue as a whole.

After this, I was sufficiently enamoured to listen to the rest of Cohen’s catalogue, and I’d like to assure the reader that his other albums are every bit as touching, as idiosyncratic and as thematically intriguing as the ones I happen to have mentioned here. At the top of this article I’ve put together a short Spotify playlist of the Cohen tracks that resonate most with me, but I doubt that anybody who becomes truly acquainted with any of this unique songwriter’s artistic achievements will have much cause for regret.

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