Leonard Cohen’s death supplies the end point to one of the great catalogues – and great lives – of the modern era.
At first a poet and then a novelist, his voice rang out loud and clear as the Canadian literary scene clicked into gear. Switching between his home in Montreal and the artistic commune that existed on the Greek island of Hydra, his was always an internationalist outlook.
Yet it was also a pragmatic one. Realising that a literary career could only supply a certain audience to his work, Leonard Cohen made the decision to dedicate himself to music – famously learning a handful of chords from a visiting Spanish musician.
The next 40 years would supply us with some utterly wonderful songwrtiting. From those early folk hewn recordings through to his synth-soaked 80s period, from ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ to his period studying as a monk, from the sparsity of those opening recordings through to his triumphant final chapter, Leonard Cohen led us on a merry, and quite singular, dance.
But where to begin? Here, Clash picks out a selection of Leonard Cohen’s most vital works.
- - -
‘The Songs Of Leonard Cohen’
A classic first time out. Seemingly effortless, ‘The Songs Of Leonard Cohen’ switches the Modernist urge of his novels – see the cosmic madness of ‘Beautiful Losers’ - to a rather more formal lyricism of still remarkable depth.
The oft-covered ‘Suzanne’ is an unforgettable opener, while the album also supplies Cohen classics such as ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’. Yet despite being overly familiar through many an earnest cover those songs supply moments of real mystery, emotional knots still waiting to be untied.
The darkly comic ‘One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong’ is the perfect finale – Leonard Cohen whistling away the demons of grief and heartbreak.
- - -
‘Songs Of Love And Hate’
It’s the smile that gets you. The front cover of ‘Songs Of Love And Hate’ features a beaming grin from Leonard Cohen, masking some of the most challenging material he had then laid down on tape. ‘Joan Of Arc’ features a dialogue between the French saint and the fire that would consume her, while ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ is an almost self-excoriating piece that ruminates on failed aspirations towards fame and marital betrayal.
The material was seemingly written some years before, with opening cut ‘Avalanche’ - later recorded by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – recalling the Spanish guitar explorations of his debut. In reality, though, it’s sonically broad, with the guest musicians living up to their nickname as The Army.
Produced by Bob Johnson, it’s small – a mere eight tracks, one of which was recorded at the Isle of Wight festival – but perfectly formed, it’s impact reaching far beyond it’s diminutive appeal.
- - -
‘New Skin For The Old Ceremony’
Bob Dylan once remarked that Leonard Cohen’s gift for melody was one of the finest facets of his songwriting, and nowhere in Cohen’s catalogue does this fragrant melodicism come closer to the fore than on ‘New Skin For The Old Ceremony’. Released in 1974 with the production overseen by Cohen himself the album found the Canadian artist embracing a wider sonic palette.
Sure, it’s sparse, but those wonderful brushes of woodwind, the subtlety of the backing vocals steer the album into new, and distinctly fresh pastures. ‘Field Commander’ was partially prompted by a visit to Israel, but this is a personal war, one navigated by solitary wanderings.
Boasting some of Leonard Cohen’s most seductive half-spoken vocals, the record actually ends on chaotic, confrontation terms, with ‘Leaving Green Sleeves’ literally screaming out of the speakers.
- - -
‘I’m Your Man’
The 80s weren’t a productive time for Leonard Cohen – between 1979 and 1988 he released just three albums, largely sitting out the decade. However it also supplied the songwriter with two of his most important releases: 1984’s ‘Hallelujah’ and this superlative full length.
Recorded with four different producers ‘I’m Your Man’ marks a defiantly lurch towards synth-pop, with Leonard Cohen lashing his songwriting with daubs of digital sound. It’s a stone cold classic, too – from ‘First We Take Manhattan’ to ‘Tower Of Song’ he supplies some of his richest, most refined songwriting.
Known for a rather downbeat tone, Leonard Cohen would intersperse references to terrorism, AIDS, and the impact of hyper-capitalism with some moments of genuine warmth and humour - “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded”, after all.
- - -
Leonard Cohen’s interest in Buddhism led him to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles, where he was ordained as a monk in 1994. Emerging to find his that long-term manager Kelley Lynch had embezzled millions from his accounts, the songwriter was pushed back out onto the road.
What followed was truly remarkable. Show after incredible show was performed, his literary work was placed back on the shelves of bookshops, and Leonard Cohen spent the last decade of his life working on a final, sumptuously Autumnal chapter.
Leonard Cohen evaded the famously sporadic nature of his catalogue, releasing three albums in the space of just six years. This final triptych opens with ‘Old Ideas’, an international success on its release in 2011 and a rumination on love, ageing, religious belief, and the nature of the art he had dedicated his life to.
It’s a wonderful record. ‘Going Home’ speaks of writing “A manual for living with defeat” but – in it’s humour, it’s romanticism, it’s life – this is the finest victory of them all.
- - -