Besides “Hallelujah,” Are There Any Good Leonard Cohen Covers?

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 9 2012 1:38 PM

Here Come the Leonard Cohen Covers

Leonard Cohen, uncovered.

Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

This week in Slate, on the occasion of Leonard Cohen’s first full-length album in seven years (and just his 12th overall), Jan Swafford compares Cohen to Dylan, arguing that the former, while more musically limited, is actually the superior lyricist. Given those musical limitations, one might think that covering Cohen is a better proposition than doing Dylan. But I’m not so sure.

Take the versions of Dylan songs addressed by John Dickerson right here on Brow Beat earlier this week. A mixed bag, to be sure, but Dickerson mentions several gems (including a few on a brand-new collection), and there are others he doesn’t mention (my personal favorite: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” as performed by Van Morrison’s old band, Them).


Meanwhile, MOJO magazine is bringing out a new compilation of Cohen covers, and a few are now online. Among these, my favorite is Bill Callahan’s “So Long, Marianne”:

The others—“Suzanne” played by Field Music, “Teachers” by Cass McCombs—seem to me distinctly less successful. And apart from Jeff Buckley’s definitive reworking of the oft-covered “Hallelujah,” I cannot think of any Cohen tunes I prefer in someone else’s voice. It’s not as though no one’s tried; at least two Cohen tribute albums came out in the 1990s alone. Musicians I like—Beck and Nina Simone, for instance—have tried their hand at “Suzanne,” to take one high-profile example, but I’ve never heard a version I like nearly as much as Cohen’s.

It seems to come down to mood: Cohen, no matter what his limitations may be, manages to express an atmosphere that beautifully matches the songs he writes. And that mood appears difficult to reproduce or to improve upon.

Maybe, though, I just haven’t heard the right recordings. Are there better ones I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal. But… What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.