‘Let your mercy spill / On all these burning hearts in hell’
Leonard Cohen, ‘If It Be Your Will’ (1984)
As I pen this tribute, I am listening to ‘First We Take Manhattan’, Leonard Cohen’s song from 1988 written in the voice of a demagogue plotting to stage a coup in New York’s heartland borough, at a dark moment when ‘everyone is wounded’. This may sound disturbingly premonitory – and the Zen-master songwriter has chosen to depart this life at the most difficult of historical moments for his native North America. In October of this cataclysmic year of 2016, the world of songwriting has now been convulsed by two epochal events, with Bob Dylan awarded the Literature Nobel, and Leonard Cohen leaving us.
It could appear invidious to press the comparison between the American Bob Dylan and the Canadian Leonard Cohen too far. They are in many ways similar figures: both are still seen by some as 1960s icons; both are Jewish; both have turned in their time to other religious discourses, Buddhism for Cohen, Christianity for Dylan. Cohen remained with us long enough to witness Dylan’s Nobel and magnanimously congratulate him on it – as well as to release, just before his decease, his 14th and last studio album (Dylan has 37), the spellbinding ‘You Want it Darker’. Their trajectories have not been identical: Cohen entered the popular music arena from the milieux of literature, as an acclaimed poet and novelist before he had ever released a song; Dylan began as a musician and acquired a parallel life in literary circles thanks to the critical attention paid to his lyrics. Some may think Cohen would have deserved the Nobel more than Dylan, but history has decreed otherwise and it now behoves lovers of music and literature to accord their just value to both.
Leonard Cohen’s career witnessed diverse ups and downs before the consolidation of his fame that marked his later years. He entered on his musical avatar in 1966, when the iconic folk singer Judy Collins recorded what until then had been a words-on-the-page poem, ‘Suzanne’.
‘Suzanne’ subsequently became Cohen’s trademark song, his most popular and most covered – until in mid-career he found it replaced in that role by ‘Hallelujah’. To the former song’s ‘She’s touched your perfect body with her mind’ succeeded the latter’s’ ‘There’s a blaze of light in every word’.
However, success did not always drop into Cohen’s lap. His first two albums, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’ (1967) and ‘Songs From a Room’ (1969), established him with the late 60s / early 70s generation as a major voice, but by ‘Recent Songs’ (1979) he had sunk into obscurity. ‘Various Positions’ (1984) was not even officially released in the US (it was only available on Canadian import) – yet it now appears as a key album, containing two songs that would be consecrated as Cohen classics, ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ and, yes, ‘Hallelujah’. The following album, ‘I’m Your Man’ (1988), achieved a deserved success, and since then Cohen’s place in the musical firmament has been secure.
The quality of Leonard Cohen’s songwriting is beyond all doubt. Some songs are more complex or more accessible than others, and his treatment of themes such as authority, integrity, desire and salvation may be more or less oblique. The great majority of his recorded songs are original compositions, though some, like the French Resistance song ‘Le Partisan’ and Irving Berlin’s ‘Always’, are cover versions, and he has also interpreted poems by Lord Byron and Federico García Lorca.
Now that the book of life has closed on Cohen’s work, if we are to evaluate his legacy I would like to lay a perhaps unorthodox claim and encourage his admirers to listen again to that neglected album from 1979, ‘Recent Songs’, which apart from dazzling musical arrangements ranging from Jewish violin to mariachi, contains, in ‘The Gypsy’s Wife’, ‘The Window’, ‘Ballad of the Absent Mare’ and more, some of his finest-ever songs. Indeed I would rate ‘Recent Songs’ even higher than ‘Various Positions’, and would put it forward as quite simply his best album. Listen intently to that album, and you may feel the healing power of Leonard Cohen’s songwriting, even now from beyond the grave!