“Music is the emotional life of most people.” — Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen wrote the sort of songs that could cause bluebells to burst into bloom in the depths of midwinter and stir the stone-carved ‘darling angels, demons and saints’ towards twinkling tears. Shortly before he died, he spoke to The New Yorker and elucidated his views on creativity, views which had transmuted throughout his career. He recited a verse from a half-finished song that seemed to encapsulate his philosophy: “Listen to the hummingbird / Whose wings you cannot see / Listen to the hummingbird / Don’t listen to me / Listen to the mind of God / Which doesn’t need to be / Listen to the mind of God / Don’t listen to me.”
Those words illuminate the poetic way in which Cohen saw the world and his place as a creator within it. As he spoke the words like an almost mystical chanted incantation, he sunk into the same plashy mire of wisdom, reverence and exultation from which he had plucked his entire back catalogue. He then cleaned up these chunks of bliss-bleached verse and transfigured them into the gleaming boon of music, and littered them throughout a half-century worth of work which he left us before he sadly waved goodbye and stepped into the hereafter.
To dissolve Leonard Cohen’s career, perfused with soulful intent and bountied with reverence, down to a top ten, seems not only impossible but a bit heavy-handed in terms of treatment of such art. That being said, he himself had no problem in sifting through the ether, picking the poignant thistle with both hands and making it easily palatable; he made that abundantly clear throughout his career.
Cohen was more than happy to leaf through his own professional life and champion the zeniths, too, having once named Recent Songs his favourite Leonard Cohen record. So with that liberating sense of emancipation in mind, let’s delve into the back catalogue of a folk master. He harnessed ‘the light in the cracks of life’ and painted the foregathered glow onto the canvas of silence; these are his most triumphant portraits.
Leonard Cohen’s ten best songs:
10. ‘The Stranger Song’
‘The Stranger Song’ is gorgeously written with some of the most poetic lyrics that have ever been put to a song. You listen along and yearn for the lines to be put to paper so that you can catch up to the rolling stream of pathos that he so casually delivers. With a steady melody and repetition of chords, he imparts a sound befitting of the subject matter.
The tale of a woman constantly providing “warmth” and “love” and “shelter” for men who are using her is a stirring exposition of life. The whole thing exhibits beauty and insight but the melody, although necessary, is not the most soaring that he has crafted.
9. ‘Tonight Will Be Fine’
Simple lyrics, simple rhythm and simple melody combine in ‘Tonight Will Be Fine’ to a spellbinding confluence of simple joy. The song is comprehensible and transparent but beautiful. This track finds Cohen in a fleeting moment of contentedness, the type that the universe doles out for free every now and again, and he transposes it faithfully into song but adds a twist of the yearning for that “foot on the stair” that he knows he’ll be hopelessly hoping for by nightfall.
It is a rare thing indeed for the simplicity of the language exhibited in this song to hold such reverential power. And it’s got some belting guitar work to boot.
8. ‘Bird on the Wire’
‘Bird on the Wire’ traverses a journey from the Hydra room in which it was conceived, to the birds perched on the telephone wires that had begun to weave their way across the Greek island, through to memories of nights gone by and ultimately the Hollywood motel room where Cohen finished the song.
Cohen has described ‘Bird on the Wire’ as a simple country song, and indeed that is how the track first debuted via the Judy Collins version. In many respects, it does have the straightforward heart of a country song, but its wayfaring ways betray its creator’s folk stylings. It is a heartbreak song of transcendence, but jarring references to ‘still-birth’ placed not entirely judiciously might prove too literally heart-breaking for some.
7. ‘You Want It Darker’
Leonard Cohen looked at death like almost nobody else. He stared it down unflinchingly, weakened its defences and, in the end, just sort of cosied up to it as a sort of benevolent final chapter to life. He penned a heart-touching letter to Marianne on the subject, and he also illuminated its ways in this tower of a song.
Often singers lose their vocals in later years, but age enriched Cohen’s baritone with a deep sense of wisdom and drama. And often, when more mature artists dabble in new-fangled production techniques, they come across as lost old folks who have stumbled into the wrong room. Still, Cohen’s taste remained true to the last, making a beast of the soaring soundscapes available to him.
6. ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ (1971)
‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ is a song that perfectly embodies the title of the album from which it is taken, Songs of Love and Hate. It is a touching stream of consciousness that documents the psychology of a torn individual. His heart bearing honesty is displayed and preserved in amber once again in a track that proves to be as touching as it is disturbing.
“You treated my lover to a flake of your life, and when she came back, she was nobody’s wife.” Lines like that are affecting enough written down, but under the gentle delicate plucking of his guitar and the bold tones of his near-spoken word vocals, they sing out as sharp as darts, darts of very malicious intent.
In his epic-poem, Sick Bag Song, Nick Cave described hearing ‘Avalanche’ for the first time and referred to it as a ‘hidden song’, the sort of “sacred song” that deals “exclusively in darkness, obfuscation, concealment and secrecy.” He describes the purposes of songs like Avalanche as an attempt to “shut off the sun, to draw a long shadow down and protect [the listener] from the corrosive glare of the world.”
‘Avalanche’ is a brooding song, one of darkness and mourning, but also comfort by way of opposites, in that it depicts by-proxy the light beyond the avalanche’s passing. Ultimately, this is just about as moody as music can get. In the darkness of the melody, it becomes clear why Cohen was championed as the voice of the divine.
‘Suzanne’ was first penned as a poem in 1966, but it cried out for the cushioned edges of a guitar to coax the reader along. The tale of a muse engaged with another, leaving nothing but platonic scraps for the singer to eagerly feed on, and then lament, in leaner times, is as dissonant and sparse as the melody and musical choices.
Whilst the mentions of Montréal landmarks may well have symbolic implications, they also imbue the song with imagery and the sort of café culture creature comforts that we associate with the smartly sartorial songsmith. The song is as complex but pure as the impetus that spawned it.
The quality of Cohen’s poetry is self-evident, but it is his music that elevates it to another level. This is something that Cohen himself understood, publishing works that weren’t fit for melodies in several anthologies.
Still, when it comes to ‘Hallelujah’, he had crafted words that yearned to be sung and pleaded for the backdrop of music’s subversive power. He even worked in meta-musical mastery in references to chord changes as he transposed the piece. ‘Hallelujah’ may well be the ultimate song about love, but it is not the ultimate version, and that is the only reason it evades the top spot.
This is his hymn to salvation and the cathartic cleansing of a broken heart. In short, ‘Hallelujah’ says to all over would be lost-love songs “why bother?”
2. ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’
“Well never mind, we are ugly, but we have the music,” must surely be one of the greatest lines in music history. In one fell swoop, it encapsulates the notion of alternative culture. The line is the flowering result from the seeded marriage of unjust hardships and the tranquil salvation of acceptance. This is a marriage that ten thousand folk songs have stretched for but never quite grasped. In one concise grab, Cohen seized the conviction and drawls it out in an understated utterance.
As for the rest of the song Leonard delves into territories where others fear to tread in a sprawling look at relationships and intimacy. The melody purrs and his gruff vocals cackle with subtle energy. This is one scintillantly sumptuous song, and it makes damn sure that you realise that fact.
1. ‘So Long, Marianne’
If there was ever an accusation that Cohen’s strength was limited to the field of lyrics and left wanting in terms of songwriting and performance then ‘So Long, Marianne’ is the gilded pop-perfect middle finger to that. To throw lines like “held on to me like a crucifix” and “I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web / is fastening my ankle to a stone” into something that could be considered an ‘earworm’ is a gargantuan feat that expresses his well-rounded craft. Once again Cohen delves into the complexities of love, pitting contentedness against curiosity and the happiness of lasting love alongside the thrill of fleeting lust.
Cutting his catalogue down to ten may well have been a rare form of mental torture, and they’re a great many songs that I have shamefully left as scattered petals on the cutting room floor. Still, I am confident that this is his magnum opus, as it is surely one of the greatest songs of all time. It is an exuberant elucidation of all that music can offer, and it soars freely above workaday woes, showering down the embalming boon that Cohen’s songbook freely scatters like rays of warming sun or showers of godly rain. (And I’ll throw in a recommendation of Courtney Barnett’s cover for free to make up for all your favourites that I missed). A true masterpiece.