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: he divulged 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 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.
Poet, singer or songwriter, he wasn’t all that ardent about the labels that were applied to him, he was just happy to have his words find an ear that was willing to listen. As he declares himself in the poem Thousands: “Out of the thousands who are known, or want to be known as poets, maybe one or two are genuine and the rest are fakes, hanging around the sacred precincts, trying to look like the real thing, Needless to say I am one of the fakes, and this is my story.” Thousands is a poem that goes to show, he even had floors for humour in his gilded tower of song.
Thus, to dissolve Leonard Cohen’s lyrical career, perfuse 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 who harnessed ‘the light in the cracks of life’ and painted the foregathered glow onto the canvas of silence, by looking at the most shining brushstrokes amid his triumphant portraits.
Leonard Cohen’s ten best lyrics:
‘Tonight Will Be Fine’
“And I choose the rooms that I live in with care,
The windows are small and the walls almost bare,
There’s only one bed and there’s only one prayer,
I listen all night for your step on the stair.”
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 showing that Cohen knew all too well some of the best poetry is in the way that you say it. It is a rare thing indeed for the simplicity of the language exhibited in this song to hold such reverential power.
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.
“And leaning on your window sill,
He’ll say one day you caused his will,
To weaken with your love and warmth and shelter.”
‘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.
“Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.”
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.
His life’s work soars on this mantra that he brilliant laid down in song. It coats trouble with a sanguine gloss without papering over the proverbial. Cohen would be the first to admit that he was imperfect and shattered, but the line celebrates the catharsis in that admission alone.
‘Bird on the Wire’
“Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free.”
‘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.
The brilliance of much of Cohen’s lyricism is that it etches itself on the sensibilities of any attentive listener. As such the refrain of “I have tried in my way to be free” is one that nestles into the psyche like a bird in the nest.
“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord,
That David played, and it pleased the Lord,
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,
The minor falls, the major lifts,
The baffled king composing Hallelujah.”
‘Hallelujah’ isn’t so much a love song as it is a song about love and a simple declaration to all other artists who would try to cling to its coat tails: why bother? Heralding from an album entitled Various Positions, the song tackles love in a more encompassing way than just about any other song has ever managed.
Written in the classic gospel timing of twelve-eight time and strewn with meta-references to musical structure, the song itself sings of a pious devotion to love, which is imbued by the religious metaphors that run throughout. This all amounts to an anthem that lifts love to rarefied heights and imparts music itself with a certain Godly hymnal salvation and its ability to offer a cathartic cleansing to a weary heart. He may well have been a poet first and a musician second, but ‘Hallelujah’ is undoubtedly his ode to sonic deliverance; even the exultant chorus is placed between personal hardships.
‘So Long, Marianne’
“Your letters, they all say that you’re beside me now,
Then why do I feel alone?
I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web,
Is fastening my ankle to a stone.”
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 and delineates the difference between poetry and lyrics that Cohen knew all too well about.
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. The song, as a whole, 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. What towers above it all is the imagery in the words alone.
‘Tower of Song’
“I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet,
But I hear him coughing all night long,
Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song.”
It is very rare for any artist to couple solemnity with a bit of a light-hearted flourish, but ‘Tower of Song’ almost seems to exhibit a sort of meta mastery that allows for a coy wink to his forebearers in song. He places himself in good company in the lineage of music but never has such posturing seemed so utterly devoid of ego, as he studiously looks to better his craft.
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.
‘Listen to the Hummingbird’
“Listen to the mind of God,
Which doesn’t need to be,
Listen to the mind of God,
Don’t listen to me.”
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.”
‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’
“I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm,
Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm,
Yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new,
In city and in forest they smiled like me and you,
But now it’s come to distances and both of us must try,
Your eyes are soft with sorrow,
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.”
The fatuous field of love songs is crowded with cliches, and its most well-trodden corner is the classic tale of star-crossed lovers that offers an arid terrain for any tired troubadour to traverse. Cohen, however, isn’t bothered about all the platitudes that have gone before him and he manages to bring a new level of sincerity and the mellowing wisp of wisdom to the subject.
His lyrics on the matter are so delicately picked that the verse plays out like a pastiche of an entire relationship from the giddy beginnings, to realising that you’re in the same battle as anyone else. With that, Cohen seems to recognise the place of his song amid the piles of love-lost tales that have gone before him, and his version steps aside and picnics pleasantly as the more visceral reams of regret stream by.
‘Chelsea Hotel #2’
“Well, never mind, we are ugly, but we have the music.”
Amid the unfurling poetry, jazzed up arrangements, and dry production of New Skin For The Old Ceremony is this line that holds weight like no other. Whether it is a direct quote from Janis Joplin, as Leonard Cohen’s tale surrounding the song seems to suggest, will never really be known. But what is undoubted is that it delineated the backbone of Cohen’s work and a fair chunk of the post-counterculture notion of alternative art.
Although this line might have been uttered in a hotel room with the intention of it never leaving, it has such a rich universality that it transcends the song, never mind New York’s most bohemian overnight domicile. It is a kindly comforting mantra for all the drifting demimondes. Cohen’s music, and indeed much of folk in general, is not the anthem of winners. ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ is never going to grace a Peloton advert or be used by an investment company. As Bob Dylan once said: “Folk music is just a bunch of fat people.”
However, if you strip away the brutal adjectives of “ugly” and “fat” put forth by the unflinching duo and replace it with something like ‘everyday’ you are left with the second half of the line that celebrates the beauty of the songs and how they offer salvation for the mass proletariat. In the post-Woodstock world, suffering in slumber after a slide from prelapsarian grace, Cohen’s line proclaims the humble triumph of the beautiful music that the counterculture movement had to fall back on. “Never mind… we have the music,” wasn’t so much an acquiesce to apathy but a slink back onto a bed of pillow-propped contentment, where the subversive words of the era’s troubadours remained as poignant as ever even if they hadn’t toppled the empires of power.