Leonard Cohen was a man whose haunting baritone voice pulled at the world’s heartstrings for generations.
A musical poet known for beautiful storytelling lyrics, Cohen maintained his razor-sharp skills until the day he died, having recently released a shudderingly beautiful final album called You Want It Darker.
A lifelong artist, Cohen published three books of poems before eventually joining New York City’s famed mid-’60s folk rock scene, where he ran in the same circles as Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground, and Nico. Songs like Hallelujah and Suzanne earned him a place at the upper echelon of songsmiths, and he was idolized by such fellow heroes as James Taylor, Willie Nelson, and Nick Drake, among many others.
“For many of us, Leonard Cohen was the greatest songwriter of them all,” said Nick Cave in a statement about Cohen’s passing at the age of 82. “Utterly unique and impossible to imitate no matter how hard we tried. He will be deeply missed by so many.”
In honor of the passing of this iconic songwriter, we have assembled a list of our 10 all-time favorites from Cohen’s archives:
“Look, Leonard; We know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good,” famously wrote label head Walter Yetnikoff, Columbia Records’ label head in 1984, when he informed the songwriter that his album Various Positions, which included the now-legendary single Hallelujah would not be released by the label. It took ten years, and a famed cover by Jeff Buckley, to bring the iconic song to the broader public’s attention, at which point it would become the most famous song Cohen ever wrote.
The first song on Cohen’s debut album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, Suzanne would firmly establish him as one of the world’s most foremost melancholic songwriters. The song tells the story of Cohen’s relationship with a real-world Suzanne, Suzanne Verdal, a dancer and artist who he met in Montreal in the summer of 1965.
Last Year’s Man
“I don’t know why, but I like this song,” wrote Cohen of Last Year’s Man in the liner notes of his 1975 The Best of Leonard Cohen release. Written and performed on a 12-string classical guitar that he smashed in 1967, the song took Cohen years to complete, due to a massive number of verses that he had written for it. In many ways, Last Year’s Man feels like the precursor to the much-later song Hallelujah, with references to historical figures like Joan of Arc flowing throughout.
Famous Blue Raincoat
A whirling waltz named for a Burberry raincoat which was long-donned by Mr. Cohen, Famous Blue Raincoat is the story of a man in the center of a love triangle. Marked by its beautiful strings and background harmonies, this is one of the most enigmatic songs in Cohen’s catalog — a rare single which may or may not actually have been about the man himself.
Bird on the Wire
Bird on the Wire is perhaps Cohen’s most famous Southern-tinged single, a mandolin-featuring waltz which was famously covered by both Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. Once again, powerful lyrics take the fore. In fact, songwriter Kris Kristofferson was so taken with Cohen’s words that he actually requested the song’s opening lines be inscribed on his tombstone: “Like a bird on the wire/Like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free”
Sisters of Mercy
Yet another waltz, this gentle song was written during a Canadian blizzard, and came to Cohen so naturally that he once said it was, “the only time a song has ever been given to me without me having to sweat over every word.”
So Long Marianne
Marianna Johnson, who Cohen described as the most beautiful women he had ever met, was the inspiration for Cohen’s classic So Long Marianne. Marrianne would remain an inspirational figure in his songwriting for much of his career. Following her passing in July of 2016, Cohen penned her a letter which was released publicly that read, “I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine… Goodbye old friend.”
Diamonds in the Mine
Slurred, brash, and with an island-influenced groove, Diamonds in the Mine showcases Cohen’s ability to create fascinatingly sloppy works of sonic art — a precursor to the unclean style which would be idolized by many songwriters that came after him.
Cohen’s voice got lower, and his subjects darker, as he aged, and that is perfectly captured on 1988’s Everybody Knows. This song focused on the AIDS crisis, sex, and world politics, with a clean bass line and clear background vocals providing a gorgeous landscape for the musician’s somber musings.
You Want It Darker
The lead single off Cohen’s final album, You Want It Darker was recorded in the musician’s final days, during which he was in too much pain to get out of bed. Heavy and somber, a church choir ushers in the modern electronic beat, while the man himself deals with the subject of imminent death on very real terms.
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