Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Leonard Cohen
We’re taking a look at the sparkling career of the late, great Leoanrd Cohen by revisiting the six songs which define him as an artist. One of the leading voices of his generation, Cohen’s work will go down in history as some of the most beautifully written songs of all time.
If you’re to believe the news, then the generalised genre of ‘rock’ is dead. The charts are stocked full of synthesised sounds and a new generation is finding new platforms for their expression more than ever. It’s an evolution in music which continues to devour the future as soon as it arrives. That doesn’t mean we can’t offer up a little education in the past though.
As we aim to offer up a little insight into the rock icons of the 20th century, we’re distilling their back catalogues into just six of their most defining songs. The tracks that offer up the first steps in getting to know the music and the person behind the legend. We’re turning our attention towards none other than the master wordsmith, Leonard Cohen.
Starting out life as a pure poet before moving into novels and then songs, Cohen has rightly gathered a reputation as the ultimate artist. Never bound by convention or guided by commercial prosperity, Cohen created a literary world within every song he produced, offering shining moments of poetry across some 15 studio albums.
Spanning from Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967, beginning his journey as an unknown, to Thanks for The Dance the posthumous album he and his son Adam had begun to compile before his death in 2016. It’s a selection of songs that are not only utterly unique, with Cohen perhaps the definition of inimitable, but poignant, powerful and purposeful.
While we’d encourage you to visit our playlist of the entire Leonard Cohen collection for a proper course in the Montrealer’s finest work, below are the first six songs any prospective fan should visit.
Leonard Cohen’s six definitive songs:
Leonard Cohen the poet was finding it a little difficult to crack the world of long-form prose and his first two books were being widely touted as intellectualism run amok. It was a tough pill to swallow but he soon found a new avenue for expression by using his poetry in songs.
One such track was ‘Suzanne’, a number which saw Cohen add a composition of lush and golden acoustic guitar, alongside his soon-to-be-iconic vocal hush, to one of his older poems and create perhaps his first moment of pure pop poignancy. Written about his friend Suzanne Verdal, with whom Cohen was seemingly infatuated, the material details the fragments of love he could extract from their purely platonic relationship.
Perceiving the rituals she introduces into his life as quasi-religious experiences, Cohen renders the image of a man both heartbroken and contented. Heartbroken that he will never be her lover and contented that their relationship will be pure and at least he has “touched her perfect body with your mind”.
‘So, Long Marianne’ (1967)
Cohen often played into the literary tropes from which he was born and one such thematic device he often employed was that of ‘the muse’. The Canadian musician became obsessed by certain women and perhaps none more so than Marianne Ihlen.
When Cohen first met Marianne she was married with a child on the Greek island of Hydra—a bonafide artist’s Mecca in the sixties. After Marianne was abandoned on the island looking after her young son alone, she and Cohen began a romantic relationship. It was, for all intents and purposes, idyllic. But Cohen was always an honest man and in the track, he expresses the internal struggle of wanting to be loved and cared for tussling with the allure of the road.
As he switches between feeling smothered and wanting to be loved, he simplifies the message and the cyclical nature of their relationship. “It’s time we began / To laugh and cry and laugh about it all again.” His and Marianne’s story is a long one and well worth catching up on.
‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ (1971)
The sixth track on Leonard Cohen’s 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate is an influential one. The song is often regarded as not only one of his finest, but also the song which confirms his unbeatable ability to put his heart on his sleeve and convey the emotion no matter the repercussions.
It’s not just pure emotion on the track though, Cohen also shows off his compositional techniques too. The song is performed like a letter and sees Cohen employ his knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin poetry by writing many of the lines in amphibrachs—a specific prosodic metre. In the letter, he details a strenuous love triangle between the speaker a woman named Jane and the male addressee, referred to as “my brother, my killer”.
As well as being one of his best, the song is also the reason Nick Cave became an artist. Describing hearing the song for the first time he said, “She used to play Leonard Cohen in her room with burning candles and all that sort of stuff. She’d listen to Songs of Love and Hate over and over again. I started to that myself and became kind of infatuated with the lyric at that point. I saw how powerful that could be.”
“This song [‘Famous Blue Raincoat’] to me just seemed like a true kind of confessional song. It just seemed to be so open and kind of honest in some way. Whether it is or not, I don’t really know.” Cave continued, “He had a tendency to air his linen in public in a way. I thought that was all very impressive at the time. I still do, of course.”
‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’ (1974)
Many of the songs in this list offer a keen insight into the man behind them. While ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’ certainly does that, it also gives us a document of the world that surrounded him. When that world is the bohemian paradise of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, then there is bound to be some crossover with the legends of rock.
It was within these walls that Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was the home to Patti Smith on many occasions, it would provide sanctuary for Jack Kerouac to type out his novel On The Road on a ridiculously long scroll of paper. In the sixties, it would provide a creative hub for some of the decade’s most prominent artists; Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, and Jefferson Airplane all penning songs with the Chelsea as the main protagonist. And, it was the scene and the subject for one of Leonard Cohen’s most poignantly perfect pieces of work.
Written in 1968, Cohen was at a loss with his career and had not yet found the intended audience he desired. It left him despondent and alone. He sought refuge in the hotel and it offered him moments of happiness. One of those moments would be shared with none other than Janis Joplin.
After seeing Joplin in the lobby of the hotel he decided to try and approach her, “I said to her, ‘Are you looking for someone?’ She said ‘Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson.’ I said, ‘Little lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson.’ Those were generous times. Even though she knew that I was someone shorter than Kris Kristofferson, she never let on. Great generosity prevailed in those doom decades.”
It would be remiss of us not to include perhaps Leonard Cohen’s most well-known song—even if most people don’t know he wrote it. The incredible, sprawling 15-minute poem had already been trimmed down considerably by the time it was recorded for his album Various Positions, but you’d expect a song with 80 draft verses which took literally years to complete to need a bit of time to breathe.
When it was first released the song was a bonafide flop. It lacked any real impetus and though it provided a searing image of the singer, it offered little value until John Cale picked it up. Cale, the founder of the Velvet Underground, took the song and arranged it into something a bit more digestible. The results were gobbled up by everyone who heard it.
Of course, while Cale can take a bit of credit for turning the track into something new it was Jeff Buckley’s blessed vocal that really made the track reach the Heavens. Later Cohen would provide his own verses for the song when performing it live to make sure it was true to its varied roots. It remains a beacon of his talent.
‘You Want It Darker’ (2016)
You Want It Darker was an album that provided the final poignant moments of a singer-songwriter who was not only unique and beguiling but humble, charming and comfortably graceful. Cohen was rather certain of his death before it arrived just 19 days before the release of his fourteenth studio album and it makes this release all the more powerful.
The focuses of the album are death, God and humour in that order and it’s a perfect distillation of Cohen’s appeal. On the titular track of the album, Cohen adopts a familiar tone and takes us to the depths of humanity, the goading title providing foreshadowing of the song’s content.
It’s a solemn and chilling track and includes both choral arrangements and the use of an organ to make the spiritual hairs on the back of your neck stand up. A raspy baritone is a fitting reminder of his vocal and as Cohen both explore and accepts his own mortality he does the only way a true artist would—for us all to see.
If we’ve piqued your interest then jump into the comprehensive Leonard Cohen playlist below.