As you have no doubt heard, Leonard Cohen died this morning. At the age of 82, Cohen was the embodiment of songwriter as poet; a man whose diverse canon of work explored politics, religion, isolation, sexuality and relationships. His music was miserable. In the best possible way.
Few musicians have had the talent and scope to blend poetry, fiction and music as seamlessly as he did over his four-decade career. His 1993 collection of works Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, which paid tribute to more than 200 of his poems, barely scratched the surface of his elusive artistic talents.
It’s a sign of times past that Leonard Cohen enjoyed a career recognised purely for his talent. In a culture today, that thrives on less worthy honours, he still stands proud as the greatest songwriter of the last century.
From his early musical days on his 1967 debut Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1969’s Songs from a Room and 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate, Cohen’s formidable and versatile musings on wry romanticism and despair never let him down. Notable song Bird On A Wire, which ruminates on the impossibility of freedom in a world rife with tethers, to the suicidal Dress Rehearsal Rag, showed that he experimented throughout his career. Emotionally intelligent from the start, his youthful reflections on eroticism in songs like The Sisters of Mercy to the wry poignancy of Suzanne, set apart his masterful use of language. At his best, in songs like So Long Marianne and Hallelujah, he wrote impassioned and beautiful verse that has become ingrained as part of our musical culture. His work is cherished and only Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan (who was recently awarded the Literary Nobel Prize) have come anywhere close to his unique talent.
From his birth in Montreal, via travels to London and the Greek island of Hydra – where he lived in quasi-reclusive circumstances – to New York in the sixties, his early life is well documented. He would retreat again from the public eye in the mid-nineties and fifteen years later, re-emerge for a sold-out world tour. A man of seeming contradictions and complexities, Leonard Cohen has always fascinated. A devout Jew, who was later ordained as a Buddhist monk and a self-described ladies’ man, every strand of Cohen’s life has been finely tuned and presented through his songs.
The news of his death came directly in the wake of the US election. And there has never been a better time to discuss human rights and what it means to open your heart. Perhaps one of Cohen’s finest musical contributions to bleak prophecy comes from his song Everybody Knows, first released on 1988’s album I’m Your Man. Written by Cohen and collaborator Sharon Robinson, the phrases ‘Everybody knows the that the dice are loaded, Everybody knows that the good guys lost,’ ring out. The equal focus of the doomed but dry take in that song presents a portrait of the artist and his political vision, depth and talent.
October 21st saw his final album You Want It Darker soar into the charts and again he was lauded by critics. But for Leonard Cohen, his focus had turned inwards, the themes of his fourteenth album focusing on mortality.
“I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die,” Cohen told New Yorker magazine towards the end of his life.
“I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
It was a simple goodbye, delivered with a half-smile. Cohen’s gift was prodigious, inspiring and right until the end, he refused to accept the bifurcation between somber and sardonic, instead, embracing the notion of the human condition in its entirety.
In a world where politics allows for abuses of power and where our understanding is increasingly censored and shaped by institutions, Leonard Cohen’s music provides some brief moment of honesty. As he witnessed and tried – throughout his life – to understand the world better, his songs are as powerful today as ever before. With all true talent, his extensive body of work will continue to move people for years to come.
Here are our favourite tracks: