Leonard Cohen sang about darkness, sadness, and loss. His music was, and continues to be, an intimate, wry, and often moody reflection on the world’s most uncomfortable truths. Despite all these themes, his songs are often also reminders that we have to go on in spite of all of these things. His music, an indelible testament to the complexity of the human condition, has been a balm for millions around the world during times of struggle. Cohen died on November 7, 2016 at the age of 82.
Born in Quebec in 1934, he worked as a poet and novelist until he began his career as a musician in 1967. Throughout the next several decades, he made a profound contribution to music with his unmatched ability to translate life’s melancholy into catharsis.
Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, and racked up countless other awards and accolades during his time in the public eye, including being named a Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest honor bestowed upon his nation’s civilians. But to just list the ways in which he was recognized would be to ignore his most lasting legacy — the art that he left behind. Leonard Cohen’s songs have been covered more than 3,000 times by artists around the world. Here are six of his most powerful and memorable compositions.
How do we keep going when everything seems to be falling apart? It’s a theme that could speak to just about anyone, at one point or another — and as of late, it feels particularly relevant. It’s also the question at the center of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” first written and recorded in 1992. It is, in many ways, a quintessential Cohen song; the lyrics hint both at and around the everyday normalcy we live through and the bigger picture we sometimes miss. His gravelly voice, in some ways, stands in contrast to the more soothing background vocals and instrumental accompaniment. It’s a song about the tenuous freedoms that all living things fight for, and sometimes lose. It’s a song that finds reverence in the broken parts of our lives, because they give us a reason to keep hoping. And it’s a song that tells us to “ring the bells we still can ring,” because there will always be something, small or large, to keep fighting for.
2. “Bird on the Wire”
Leonard Cohen was not, by any means, a traditional country music artist. Yet one of his most stirring songs fits right in with many classics from that genre. “Bird on the Wire” is a seemingly simple song, both lyrically and melodically. Recorded for Cohen’s 1969 album Songs From a Room, it works as a meditation on both futility and redemption. He likens himself to a myriad of creatures — from a bird, to a beast, to a beggar, and “a drunk in a midnight choir” — in trying to explain how he’s tried to live within the confines of life. There’s an element of regret, both in his vocal performance and scattered within the song’s verses. But ultimately, “Bird on the Wire” is a song about the ways we can find meaning in life, even when everything somehow feels predestined.
3. “Famous Blue Raincoat”
Leonard Cohen’s best songs often utilized generalization, mixed metaphor, and abstract imagery to invoke emotion. So in some ways, it’s surprising that one of his most unforgettable pieces was, in every sense, a story. “Famous Blue Raincoat” was released on his 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate — and it is, indeed, a piece that represents both ends of that emotional spectrum. The song is framed as a letter and centers around a complicated romantic triangle. The song shifts from disdain, to bitterness, to ambivalence, all while offering up bits and pieces of information about the wheres, the whens, and the what-was-saids. The lyrics hint at betrayal, at hurt, and at an extreme loneliness in the wake of an affair — but also, perhaps, at relief for having seen his relationship for what it truly was. “I guess that I miss you,” Cohen sings to his friend. “I guess I forgive you.” That he can so effortlessly present the multi-faceted experience and its range of emotions in a song that at times feels almost upbeat is a true testament to his gift for expression.
Leonard Cohen was a poet before he was a songwriter — and his gift for the written word was, in so many ways, what helped make him such a celebrated artist. In fact, his song “Suzanne” was a published poem before it was set to music. Released on Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1969, it’s a hypnotic tune about navigating his relationship with a magnetic young woman. It’s also, more generally, about that complicated line between friendship and love. Cohen was never a skilled vocalist, though his voice is unforgettable in its imperfections and untrained qualities. However, in his earlier years it didn’t have the growly rasp that made so many of his later performances so captivating. The way he tells us about Suzanne — with her carefree spirit and “perfect body” — is more conversational than it is melodic; but that’s half the reason this song is so engaging. It feels like an intimate confession, and if you’ve ever struggled to stave off feelings for someone you can’t help but be drawn to, it’s one that will feel all too familiar.
5. “Everybody Knows”
Leonard Cohen mastered the art of delivering bad news — and that was never more apparent than with 1988’s “Everybody Knows.” The song is aggressively pessimistic, referencing AIDS, racism, global pandemic, and the general feeling that the deck is stacked against us. “Everybody knows the fight was fixed,” he tells us, “the poor stay poor and the rich get rich.” Yet, there’s a tongue-in-cheek quality to his drawling delivery of these dire reminders that lifts the song above insurmountable sadness. He and co-writer Sharon Robinson fill the song’s background space with a driving percussive beat and somber-yet-soothing harmonies. The result is a song that commiserates with us over the state of things but never asks us to give up or break down.
Yes, it’s been covered too many times. Yes, it was in Shrek and The O.C., and so many other fluffy artifacts of the early 2000s that at this point, if it shows up in a film or TV show, it’s nearly always through the lens of parody. But none of these things can change the fact that Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” first recorded in 1984, is, from a songwriting standpoint, a nearly perfect song. It makes gospel feel like rock ‘n’ roll. It’s angry, and the original recording and subsequent live performances from Cohen barely resemble many of the better-known pop renditions that have come since.
Much of “Hallulujah” is abstract, with both obvious (the title) and not-so-obvious (references to Samson and Delilah) religious illusions. Yet it feels wholly personal. It speaks of grief and hope in the same breath; it accepts the potential of despair and chooses to go the other way. “Love is not a victory march,” Cohen tells us, “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” By the end of the song, he’s aired his grievances about the ways in which things go wrong — but as the song fades out, he is singing that same word again and again — not just in sorrow, but in defiant praise of everything that life has to offer.
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