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.