Leonard Cohen’s best songs for newcomers.

Still Don’t Get Leonard Cohen? Here’s a 10-Song Primer.

Still Don’t Get Leonard Cohen? Here’s a 10-Song Primer.

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 1 2014 12:26 PM

Where Do I Start With Leonard Cohen?

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Leonard Cohen in 2012.

Photo by NICOLAS MAETERLINCK/AFP/GettyImages

On the occasion of Leonard Cohen’s death, Slate remembers the artist with a reprint of this 2014 post:

Leonard Cohen is an iconic pop figure, music’s unofficial poet laureate, a Zen monk, and a dirty old man rolled into one. In September he turned 80 and released his 13th studio album since 1967 (and his best since 1992), Popular Problems. Yet many people likely know him only as the composer of the ubiquitous “Hallelujah,” that complex bundle of theological irony and sex that’s become a lazy go-to for cover singers and media music supervisors. For those uninitiated, it must seem confusing how this wizened Jewish doom-meister attained such mystique. There are too many high marks, low blows, and tall tales in Cohen’s eight decades to capture in a short list, but these should flesh out his dapper shroud.

Carl Wilson Carl Wilson

Carl Wilson is Slates music critic.

1. Poem: “For E.J.P.” (reading, 1966)

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Born and raised in Montreal, Canada, Cohen published his first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956 at age 22, and soon followed it with others, full of Holocaust imagery, undergraduate surrealism, moments of garish bad taste, and some breathtakingly romantic lyrics that set him up as a kind of beatnik Keats. He became a phenomenon in Canada with his nervous and nervy, hyper-articulate personality, best witnessed in action in the 1965 National Film Board documentary Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen. This archival recording from New York’s 92nd Street Y from 1966 offers a couple of his better poems, read at the threshold of his great transition into a musical career.

2. “So Long, Marianne” (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967)

Cohen often retreated from his literary celebrity to the Greek island of Hydra, where he met and fell in love with Norwegian beauty Marianne Jensen. (That’s her on the back of the album Songs from a Room.) After years together, his music began keeping him away, leaving him more and more prone to sexual temptation. In a later poem, he would write of “Marianne and the child/ The days of kindness … The precious ones I overthrew/ For an education in the world.” In the moment, he wrote her this gorgeous kiss-off, one of the few tracks from his first album I don’t find too bookishly stiff or too gauche a come-on even for him (see “Suzanne”). Better yet is this live 1972 performance, including a backstage view of the artist’s emotional fragility even at the height of success.

3. “Story of Isaac” (Songs from a Room, 1969)

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This re-telling of the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac as an allegory of the Vietnam War was perhaps the first Cohen song I ever heard—its force reminded me of Bob Dylan’s similarly prophetic tones on “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” It’s also an early indication of Cohen’s always elusive political side. Above, a potent performance in Warsaw in 1985, no doubt with the child-sacrificers of the Soviet empire squarely in his sights.

4. “Famous Blue Raincoat” (Songs of Love and Hate, 1971)

For Cohen, every love triangle is also a spiritual conundrum. On this song, a comparatively sweet moment on the masterful and often brutally dark Songs of Love and Hate, that puzzle is bound up with Scientology (“did you ever go clear?”), the Lower East Side (“there’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening”), bromance versus romance (“be it for Jane or for me”), and vintage fashion. It includes one of his signature moves—literally—with the epistolary signoff, “Sincerely, L. Cohen.” And it also provided the title for Jennifer Warnes’ hit 1987 album of Cohen covers that helped warm up the crowd for his 1988 comeback.

5. “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974)

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A kiss-and-tell elegy for the late Janis Joplin, recalling their hotel-room tryst, honoring her spirit as a fellow “worker in song,” and then admitting—with a mix of gallant modesty and frank callousness that brings shivers—“that’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.” Cohen later regretted that he had been indelicate enough to reveal who the song was about. I suspect he’s the only one, but out of respect for his discretion, I’ll offer you Rufus Wainwright’s cover version instead.

6. “Who By Fire” (New Skin for the Old Ceremony)

Save for the fascinating disaster of his 1977 attempt to collaborate with demon-genius producer Phil Spector on Death of a Ladies’ Man, Cohen’s albums from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s are as good as anything he had ever done. (“Hallelujah” itself was first heard on 1984’s Various Positions.) But the U.S. music business had soured—whatever had led it to imagine this dour poet a commercial prospect in the first place was gone. While European tours kept him afloat, many listeners never caught up with the many little miracles of those lost years, including this half-satirical, half-solemn twist on a traditional Jewish liturgy of atonement. I selected it above countless other period contenders (“The Guests,” “The Smokey Life,” “If It Be Your Will”) mainly because this video clip of Cohen performing it with jazz colossus Sonny Rollins on the 1980s TV showcase Night Music is unmissable.

7. “Tower of Song” (I’m Your Man, 1988)

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After Warnes reminded America of his existence, Cohen took complete advantage with an updated synth-based sound and an essentially flawless album on which the Cohen we know today sprang full-grown from his own skull. It’s capped by this sardonic valedictory address to his vocation and his fate, which enacts its own theme in perfect line after perfect line—no doubt the product of writing and discarding hundreds of not-quite-perfect stanzas, his usual method, while “standing by the window/ where the light is strong.” When Cohen cracks, “I was born like this, I had no choice/ I was born with the gift of a golden voice,” he’s mocking himself, of course. He also totally means it.

8. “Take This Waltz” (I’m Your Man)

I’m Your Man’s very free translation of “Little Viennese Waltz,” by one of Cohen’s literary heroes, the martyred Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, could musically and lyrically face down just about any song ever written and gore it like a bull.

9. “Democracy” (The Future, 1992)

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I mentioned that Cohen’s politics can seem elusive—and never more completely, mystifyingly, and delightfully so than on this song from I’m Your Man’s followup, The Future. It bores relentlessly into ’90s social ills (“the fires of the homeless, the ashes of the gay”) and repeatedly concludes that “democracy is coming to the U.S.A.,” which sounds at once like a sincere prognostication and like a nihilistic joke: “I’m stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay/ I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet:/ Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”

10. “Closing Time” (The Future, 1992)

The 1990s would prove to be another complicated decade. Cohen withdrew from music to devote himself to his Zen monastic studies up on California’s Mount Baldy, in a desperate quest for relief from mental torment. Even when he returned in the early 2000s, he was slow to regain his sharpness. There were highlights, but few consensus picks on the albums preceding his latest, post-world-tour recordings. So I will close with this aptly titled, eroto-apocalyptic frolic, which, like each of his strongest songs, seems to contain the total essence of Cohen: “I swear it happened just like this:/ A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss./ The Gates of Love, they budged an inch,/ I can't say much has happened since.”