Enigmatic, literate and capable of infusing wit into the most doom-laden lyrics, Leonard Cohen was one of the greats. First and foremost a writer, by the time he diversified into songwriting in the mid 60s, he was already well into his thirties. Never the greatest singer, he still managed to perform his songs effectively and in an instantly recognisable style which delighted both the art-house and the coffee-house set. Another trademark on his first brace of albums were the sparse musical arrangements which often centred around his flamenco-style guitar playing, infact I do recall reading an interview with Cohen where he confessed to refusing to have drums on his early songs.
One of Cohen’s skills that he possessed to the very end of his life was his ability to pen a seductive lyric. World weary, cynical, yet romantic, Cohen never wrote for ‘the kids’ which ensured that his writing was mature and fully formed from the start. He never talked down to his audience and let people translate his songs in whatever way they wanted.
True, there were diversions, such as Death of a Ladies Man, where the combination of Cohen’s love of musical simplicity was massively at odds with producer Phil Spector’s wall of sound. The there was that point in the early 80s where his own record company thought he had fallen so far off the cultural map that they opted not to release 1984’s Various Positions in America. The irony is, that it contained what proved to be his most famous song. Yup, you can bet Mr Cohen had a wry smile about that later down the road.
Oddly enough it was the commercial success of a covers album of Cohen tunes by Jennifer Warnes, one of Cohen’s former backing singers, that proved there was still a market for his music. This resulted in a sizeable commercial push behind 1988’s I’m Your Man, the album where Cohen fully embraced synthesisers and contemporary production method, without losing one iota of his unique musical identity. It was easily his best album since the early 70s. Hell, it even had a picture of the man himself munching a banana on the cover and still looking like one of the coolest individuals on the planet. Dylan, Mitchell and Young never managed to pull something like that off.
The 90s saw a single album before Cohen sought seclusion at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, where he embraced buddhism and served as personal assistant to Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. By the end of the decade he returned to music and spent the rest of his life recording a series of classy, mature albums that his fans embraced with as much fervour as anything he’d recorded in his younger days.
Of course, Leonard Cohen’s later years were perhaps not the plain sailing he deserved them to be. In late 2004 it emerged that Cohen’s manager had cleared out pretty much all the money he had laid aside to enjoy his autumn years with. Following the legal unpleasantness Cohen never recovered his lost earnings, and so headed out on a series of tours that would exhausted artists two decades his junior. On the upside, it did mean that many of his fans who never thought they would have the opportunity to see a live performance by the great man, actually managed to see him in the flesh.
It was also around this time that “Hallelujah” cemented itself as Cohen’s most celebrated numbers. Originally a track on 1984’s Various Positions, a cover by Jeff Buckley on his sole album had stirred interest in the song during the mid 90s, and a cover by Rufus Wainwright in the opening years of the millennium did likewise. From there it was hijacked by the X-Factor, incensing Buckley and Wainwright fans who made a concerted bid to derail the commercial pop machine, but ignored the fact that, outside of Cohen’s own ever-mutating original (he apparently had 80 verses that he switched around as it pleased him), the absolute definitive cover version had been recorded by John Cale as early as 1991.
The amount of attention that “Hallelujah” has received in recent years has arguably obscured the fact that Leonard Cohen was a shockingly consistent songwriter all the way from his 1967 debut to this year’s You Want it Darker, released just three weeks before his death.
Leonard Cohen’s career, despite his reputation for being a doom-laden folky, saw him write songs that ranged from acoustic classics like “Suzanne”, “So Long Marianne”, “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Chelsea Hotel”, to synth-classics like “First We Take Manhattan” and “Tower of Song”, to late period greats like “Amen” and “Did I Ever Love You”. And that’s not even mentioning “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard On”.
Leonard Cohen enjoyed a long and varied career, and while his commercial fortunes waned, his creativity never did. He set the bar for mature popular music throughout his career, influenced countless acts and proved that you could continue to be a compelling live performer well into your late 70s and beyond.
Thank you Mr Cohen. Your music made the world a better place for us all to be in, and right now, we all need that more than ever.