When Leonard Cohen said, “Music is the emotional life of most people,” it wasn’t just a pithy soundbite with a grain of truth, but a veracious belief that he candidly propagated throughout his career. Music is a boon and Leonard Cohen’s work harnessed what is best about a lot of art in general: divulging hard truths with the sort of careworn beauty that triumphantly makes sense of human tragedy while offering up solace as it does so. His discography might not be perfect, but because each record lives and breathes on this principle, there is always at least one moment to savour, and it is these which we have collated below.
There is a second quote to go with this first that seemed to sum up his worldview. Shortly before he died, Cohen spoke to The New Yorker and elucidated his views on creativity, views which had transmuted over the course of 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 an artist 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 balm of music, littering them throughout a half-century worth of work which he left us before he sadly waved goodbye and stepped into the hereafter.
While in the troughs of his career choosing a champion song from a record is like opening the fridge the day before the big shop, on other occasions, it is a near-impossible task. However, 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 critique in mind, let’s get into the songs that stand out in one of the most magnificent back catalogues ever plucked from the ether. The only time creative brilliance seemed to escape him, in fact, was when it actually came to naming his records, having amassed the most banal collections of titles this side of instruction booklets.
The best song from every Leonard Cohen album:
‘So Long, Marianne’ from Songs of Leonard Cohen
To dissolve Leonard Cohen’s debut record, perfuse with soulful intent and bountied with reverence, down to just one gleaming gemstone, 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. Nowhere was that clearer than with ‘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.
‘Bird on the Wire’ from Songs From A Room
‘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.
‘Avalanche’ from Songs of Love and Hate
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.
‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ from New Skin For The Old Ceremony
“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 fistful, Cohen seized the verdict 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.
‘Paper Thin Hotel’ from Death of a Ladies Man
“My reputation as a ladies man was a joke that caused me to laugh bitterly through the ten thousand nights I spent alone,” Cohen says. While the fact his back catalogue seemingly contains more autobiographical songs of love and love-lost than a particularly shy bird has twittered half-notes from a treetop, ‘Paper Thin Hotel’ does a good job of making out that his quote actually true.
The heavenly choir-like intro does nothing to suggest the discontented tale that follows, and it is this brisk mellowed out melancholy that makes the song succeed. The lyrics are so helpless that a chorus of tiny violins might have contained too much self-sympathy, but the contrasting harmony makes it all the more colourful.
‘The Window’ from Recent Songs
Leonard Cohen may have championed Recent Songs as his favourite album, but he joins an ever-growing list of artists in a majority of one when it comes to selecting their greatest works. Recent Songs is a great album, but it’s not his best and the call-back of ‘The Window’ smashes that point home with brilliant aplomb.
In an unfurling swirl of poetry Cohen, the twists biblical notions of salvation into a sweet lullaby. Not many songwriters could tackle the notion of eternities with the casual stride of an Italian centre half.
‘Hallelujah’ from Various Positions
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.
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 with references to chord changes as he transposed the piece. ‘Hallelujah’ may well be the ultimate song about love.
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?”
‘Tower of Song’ from I’m Your Man
It is another mark of Cohen’s boldness to write an ode to his craft and name it ‘Tower of Song’. Crooning “I was born with the gift of a golden voice,” over what is essentially a synthesiser fit for a playgroup is what now known as a power move, but never has such posturing seemed so utterly devoid of ego.
When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which in its own way seems laughable) he recited the lyrics to this song, betraying the fact that there is wryness to words befitting of the joy of music that he’s singing about in the first place.
‘Anthem’ from The Future
An odd phenomenon occurs when a true music legend dies, there is a rush for everyone to distil their work down to one line. The epitaph that now defines Leonard Cohen is “There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” As far as lines go, that is not a bad one to be remembered by.
He harnessed ‘the light in the cracks of life’ and painted the foregathered glow onto the canvas of silence; the masterpiece of ‘Anthem’ is one of his most triumphant portraits. It coats trouble with a sanguine gloss without papering over the proverbial.
‘The Land of Plenty’ from Ten New Songs
After almost a decade of soul-searching, Leonard Cohen arrived once more with a serving of wisdom for the masses. “May the lights in The Land of Plenty/Shine on the truth some day,” saw a couplet that saw the songsmith tap into some poetic wisdom that he had tapped into in albums gone by.
The world-weary tones of his voice imbue the song with a sense that he really has gone to the edge of the Earth only to bring back word of what he has learned. Rather than a flashy tale of look what I know now, it is once more a look back on a life of conquest and conquerings.
‘Morning Glory’ from Dear Heather
When it comes to Dear Heather, it is hard to be convinced that the modernised soundscape suits his style. While it is always in an artist’s best interest to develop and evolve, a sartorial troubadour and a synth-pop sonic backdrop can sometimes find themselves at ends.
However, ‘Morning Glory’ sees Cohen leave his lain and venture into a jazzy lounge vibe. He is at home there and while his casual lyrics seem to float rather than soar, they fit the atmosphere like Sunday morning football and the thermos flask.
‘Going Home’ from Old Ideas
If he had written the first line of his own requiem with the light and cracks of ‘Anthem’, on ‘Going Home’ he turned the torch on himself. It is a self-deprecating look back, but it is far from entirely fractured.
He had so much wisdom at this stage that he seemed to realise even extolling his own shortcomings was in a way a virtue and it is one that fans basked in like a royal pardon for their own place in the universal element of the song. The instrumentation is beautifully understated to match the slightly removed prose.
‘Almost Like The Blues’ from Popular Problems
Leonard Cohen has never been a songwriter afraid of venturing into the darker side of blue away from the oft-azure sky of pop. The first lines of ‘Almost Like The Blues’ would struggle to get any darker, “I saw some people starving/There was murder, there was rape,” he coughs out in a bracing wind of doom, that makes you wonder as a listener – ‘If this is merely almost then spare me the real deal’.
With a rumbling heist movie melody and flourishing violins, the song rumbles along like a gathering storm, always remaining interesting and brilliantly refined.
‘You Want It Darker’ from 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.
‘Listen to the Hummingbird’ from Thanks for the Dance
As posited in the intro to this piece Leonard Cohen’s last word on record seemed befittingly defining. And what’s more his son’s production likewise took the song back to the bare bones of the poetry that he first started out with.
The long winding chronicle of triumphs and tribulations was ruminated on at length and what he was left with was a defiant state of equanimity that James Baldwin hinted at when he wrote: “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it […] But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”