When It Comes to Writing Lyrics, Leonard Cohen Is Second to No One, Including Bob Dylan

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Feb. 8 2012 12:15 PM

Hallelujah for Leonard Cohen

When it comes to lyrics, he’s second to no one—including Dylan.

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Canadian songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen in 2012.

Photograph by Joel Saget/Getty Images.

Check out our Spotify playlist of the Leonard Cohen songs discussed in this essay.

Leonard Cohen has a new album out: Old Ideas, his 12th, and his first in seven years. He's 77 now, and if you know Cohen you know his age will get its due in the new songs. The title, of course, has a double meaning, the second being that these songs are ideas about getting old. His life is his wellspring, and life has amounted to a long and singularly winding road for this troubadour.

Born in Montreal in 1934 of Polish and Lithuanian Jewish parents, Cohen was first a modestly successful poet. He learned guitar to pick up girls and got into songwriting partly because he was tired of being poor. His first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, came out in 1967, when he was 32. Probably it got green-lighted in the wake of Bob Dylan's success, when Dylan had demonstrated to record executives that you could make highly personal, elusively poetic, scraggly sounding records that the public would buy. Of course, Dylan was riding a folk wave when he emerged in the early ’60s, and Cohen caught that wave too.

I'd like to compare those two, in the process of looking back over Cohen's life and songs. He and Dylan have been working for decades without any visible connection or competition. In practical terms there is no competition, because Dylan has been by far the more visible and influential artist. But if Cohen has always sung in the shadow of Dylan, in the quality of the work I suggest he has been in nobody's shadow.

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A long career has done Cohen well by me, and I imagine a lot of listeners. In the ’60s and ’70s, I liked a few of his songs well enough, though I found the voice and the tunes not as striking as Dylan's brassy honk and his unforgettable melodies in the folk days. "Blowin' in the Wind," "Mister Tambourine Man," any number of Dylan songs seemed timeless, as if they'd evolved through many voices over many years. (Some, including "Blowin' in the Wind," were based on traditional tunes.)

Cohen didn't do that, probably couldn't do that. He was never the tunesmith Dylan was, and in the early years his voice actually made Dylan's sound pretty good. Cohen sang in a tenor you could call "reedy" if you wanted to be nice, "nasal" if you didn't. They're both mediocre guitar players; any number of high-school students could play rings around them. Cohen's melodies tended to start at the bottom of his range, ascend toward the top of his range—which was not very far—then descend and screw around in the lower region for the rest of the verse. His early hit "Suzanne" is a case in point.

The lyrics were a different matter. Few if any Cohen songs would make a dent if not for the words. His first book of poems came out in 1956, when he was still an undergrad at McGill. Since then he has published several books of verse, plus a couple of novels in the ’60s. The experience has contributed to who he is: one of the finest, most distinctive, most authentic poets to write popular song in English in the last century or so. For one example of why, recall “Who By Fire?," his meditation on untimely death and the ultimate unanswerable question.

And who by fire, who by water,
who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
who in your merry merry month of May,
who by very slow decay,
and who shall I say is calling?...

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
who in solitude, who in this mirror,
who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains, who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?

Who else in our time would or could write a lyric like that?

To put Cohen at the top of his trade is not to forget classic American song lyrics like the wordplay of Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter. But I wonder how often either of those geniuses, for such they were, actually meant what they wrote: "In time the Rockies may crumble,/ Gibraltar may tumble,/ they're only made of clay,/ but our love is here to stay." That's from Ira Gershwin. It is, I submit, exquisite bullshit, music in itself. And I wonder in what respect Dylan means "Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot/ Fighting in the captain's tower/ While calypso singers laugh at them/ And fishermen hold flowers." You wonder sometimes if Dylan is earnest about much of anything other than his scorn.

There's an unmistakable sense that Leonard Cohen means every word he sings, in his irony and his cynicism, in his pain and his exaltation. For me, all that didn't sink in for quite a while. After the mid-’70s I lost track of Cohen. I'm a classical musician, perennially struggling to pursue my craft while somehow paying the rent. For decades, the little time I had to spare for pop music I spent on the Stones, Beatles, Creedence, Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Zappa, et al. Like a lot of people I was too lazy to come to terms with Cohen's lyrics. Then cruising cable one night about 15 years ago, I came upon him standing in his usual suit, at the foot of a staircase somewhere, behind a little keyboard, singing "Democracy." It was a dry and understated but strangely powerful performance, and the song slayed me. At the end he was ushered up the stairs by a couple of babes in tight dresses. It was a memorable turn for an aging bard and self-proclaimed ladies' man.

For the first time I heard Cohen's new voice, the whiskey baritone that I like better than his old voice. His melodies may still be on the plain side, but the voice says so much more than it used to. In that voice there's a lot of years, a lot of cigarettes, stimulants, lust, regret, and hard-won wisdom. When he gets spiritual, the voice questions that wisdom but doesn't destroy it—see "Anthem" and his much-covered "Hallelujah."

The day after catching him on TV, I went out and bought The Best of Leonard Cohen and More Best of and have been listening to them ever since. I've got more songs from various albums in the mix, but mostly it's those collections and a few of Ten New Songs, from 2001. He put together the best-of albums himself, and he chose well.

If Cohen is the finest poet of our songwriters, he's hardly a simple or a predictable one. You can never guess which direction a line is going to come from: cynical, surreal, earnest, bitter, exalted—no way to know. Eventually it adds up to a strange sense. Beside Dylan's flights of fancy and rage, Cohen's sentiments seem more immediate, more real. Or maybe I just have a touch more preference for Cohen's familiar depression tinged with something like religion than for Dylan's wit and wildness and biliousness. A prime example is "Democracy," the song that brought me back to Cohen.

Look at how the trajectory of the lines builds to an unexpected climax.

It's coming through a crack in the wall,
on a visionary flood of alcohol,
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount,
which I don't pretend to understand at all.
It's coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

That's what I mean by never knowing where a line is going to come from. The trajectory of that verse careens among, roughly, 1) surreal/alcoholic, 2) the New Testament, 3) Otis Redding, 4) surreal/economic, before we arrive at the stunning refrain.

None of this is intended to put down Dylan. At his best he's incomparable. Consider the beginning of "Highway 61 Revisited":

Oh God said to Abraham, Kill me a son.
Abe say, Man, you must be puttin' me on.
God say, No.
Abe say, Whut?
God say, You can do what you want, Abe, but, uh,
next time  you see me comin', you better run.
Abe say, Where you want this killin' done?
God say: Out on Highway 61.

That's not exact because I'm quoting it from memory. Even at their weirdest, you can often quote Dylan lyrics from memory. This song is sublime in its way, also hysterical. It begins with a succinct send-up of religion before dissolving into surrealism, which is where most of the song dwells.