Primer: Leonard Cohen

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: the work of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen 101
If there’s a defining image of Leonard Cohen’s career, it’s the cover of his 1968 debut Songs Of Leonard Cohen. He cuts a dashing figure, with his suit and middle-class businessman’s haircut. Already well into his 30s, Cohen was thoroughly out of step with contemporary rock music, but to his credit, he didn’t pretend to be a hippie. Instead, his natural-born outsider status instantly made him a cult figure among similarly disaffected and alienated listeners. Over the course of nearly 45 years as a recording artist—right up through his wonderful new album Old IdeasCohen has never commanded the kind of broad popular appeal enjoyed by peers like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Paul Simon. But the level of commitment among his small band of followers is at least as intense. To outsiders, Cohen’s reputation for po-faced miserablism—which earned him the ironic nickname “Laughing Len”—can make his songs seem deceptively turgid, joyless, even shlocky in their seemingly overbearing seriousness. But if you’re on Cohen’s singular wavelength, his penetrating examinations of the human condition also brim with wit, lust, wisdom, and timeless melody. 

The photo on the front of Songs Of Leonard Cohen speaks to Cohen’s reputation as the most literary of pop-rock songwriters—it looks more like a back-cover sleeve from a book of poetry than an album cover. Cohen was a published poet and author in his native Canada before he became a singer-songwriter. When it was published in 1966, his most famous book, Beautiful Losers, was described by critic Robert Fulford as “the most revolting book ever written in Canada.” Given that Fulford is the paternal fuddy-duddy of Canadian criticism (he was similarly appalled with David Cronenberg’s Shivers), his writhing disgust rang as backhanded praise. Cohen’s second book is now considered a high-water mark of Canadian literature, as essential to the national canon as Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler. Beautiful Losers anticipates many of the elements that would come to dominate Cohen’s songs: heartache, love triangles, unreliable narrators, religion, and magic. But his prose, which marries the lyricism of James Joyce with the elegant smuttiness of Henry Miller while still seeming wholly original, is its own unique mode. Cohen’s novels aren’t merely an adjunct to his songwriting; they’re key to forming a cohesive portrait of his artistry.

Cohen’s talent as a writer wouldn’t be recognized outside of his country until the release of Songs Of Leonard Cohen, which stands with the best of Dylan, Young, and Joni Mitchell in the annals of great and influential singer-songwriter records. Like the early Dylan, Cohen performed with the sparest of instrumentation, highlighting only his own guitar and limited (yet hypnotic and expressive) vocals with only occasional assistance from strings and a rhythm section. But because Cohen was older, he approached his subject matter from a somewhat more sophisticated and measured point-of-view. Songs like the instant classic “Suzanne”—which, like many Cohen favorites, was popularized by another singer, Judy Collins—pile layers of pain and pleasure on top of each other, conveying a powerful melancholy while never committing to any one meaning. Because of Cohen’s morose, decidedly pop-unfriendly delivery, songs like “Winter Lady” and “The Stranger Song” often were praised more for their carefully crafted lyrics than their melodies. While the lyrics are littered with memorable lines—“He was just some Joseph looking for a manger,” from “The Stranger Song,” comes immediately to mind—what makes these songs so enduring is the music, which evokes that “sitting-in-a-dark-room-alone” feeling better than any of the countless albums that have followed in its wake. 

Songs was a modest hit in the U.S., but it was a sensation in Europe, staying on the charts for the next year and a half. (Cohen later played the Isle Of Wight festival—basically the British equivalent of Woodstock—in 1970.) Coupled with the album’s critical popularity, Songs proved to be a tough act to follow. For many, 1969’s Songs From A Room, didn’t quite measure up. Employing Blonde On Blonde producer Bob Johnston and, like Dylan, recording in Nashville, Cohen stuck a toe in country music—a nod to his hero Hank Williams—and expanded his sonic palette, utilizing local musicians like Charlie Daniels and Dylan and Johnny Cash sideman Ron Cornelius, who later became Cohen’s live bandleader. But in spite of initial criticisms of the album, Room is nearly as good as Songs, boasting the future standard “Bird On The Wire” and many other songs that belong on an all-time Cohen mixtape, including the devastating “Story Of Isaac,” “The Old Revolution” and “Lady Midnight.”

Cohen’s third record, 1971’s Songs Of Love And Hate, saw him breaking away from straight-ahead folk and into the hopelessly brooding territory that defines much of his best work. Like Songs Of Leonard Cohen and Songs From A Room, even the record’s title is unadorned, describing its central preoccupations. Love And Hate opens with the excellent “Avalanche”—which Nick Cave, Cohen’s heir apparent, would cover as the opener to his first solo record, 1984’s From Her To Eternity—a song about curdled romance sung from the point of view of a heartbroken hunchback, and works through a song cycle detailing suicide (“Dress Rehearsal Rag”), fading beauty (“Diamonds In The Mine”), infidelity (“Famous Blue Raincoat”), and other downer subjects. It would all seem awfully depressing if Cohen’s temper, and the sparse instrumentation, didn’t make it so sublime.

This air of melancholy reaches its maudlin crescendo on 1977’s Death Of A Ladies’ Man, which has the double distinction of being both the weirdest record Leonard Cohen ever recorded and the weirdest record Phil Spector ever produced. Ladies’ Man was kind of the Cohen equivalent of Dylan going electric, and plenty of fans didn’t cotton to his full-on move away from acoustic folk and into Spector’s Wall Of Sound arrangements. From the cheesy horns of album opener “True Love Leaves No Traces” through “Memories” (an anthem to pining adolescent awkwardness that anticipates Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag”) to the plodding, nearly 10-minute title track that closes the album, Ladies’ Man sounds like Cohen howling through Spector’s layers of production. But there’s real pain here. Cohen seems lost in time, convincingly faking his way through doo-wop, bubblegum pop, and even a funk number called “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On” that features Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg on backing vocals. 

By the time of 1988’s I’m Your Man, Cohen’s musical identity was well established—he was the poet with the guitar, the guy from the ’60s who had made records more or less in the same vein for 20 years. (Death Of A Ladies’ Man being more the exception than the rule.) That all changed with I’m Your Man, which radically remade Cohen’s music to ostensibly fit in better with current electro-pop trends. Of course, an artist as perverse as Cohen is incapable of ever fitting in completely, and the synthesizers and clattering drum machines sound like subversions of the period’s Top 40 music. In the context of “First We Take Manhattan”—an alternately hilarious and skin-crawling first-person narrative about a fascist lunatic—the trendy touches sound like a parody of Reagan-era superficiality. The production of I’m Your Man and subsequent Cohen albums is still controversial among Cohen devotees, many of whom swear by his earlier, folkier period. But even those put off by the keyboards can’t deny the songwriting of “Everybody Knows,” the self-referential “Tower Of Song,” and the sly title track, which playfully addresses the heavy-breathing lover-man side of Cohen’s persona.   

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Intermediate work 
Cohen took his first real steps away from the stark musical backdrops of his early albums with 1974’s New Skin For The Old Ceremony. The album features extensive musical backing in the form of keyboards, trombones, banjos, and mandolins, among other instruments. Probably not coincidentally, New Skin was also Cohen’s first album to flop in the normally strong U.K. market. Time, however, has been kind to New Skin, with many fans ranking it among the best of his second-tier albums. The album’s best-known song, “Chelsea Hotel #2,” includes a line about an unnamed woman “giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street.” Cohen strongly hinted in subsequent performances of the song that the woman was Janis Joplin, an admission he later came to regret. As strong as the image is, the mental picture of Joplin servicing Cohen doesn’t totally ruin what’s otherwise a quite beautiful love song.

After the wackadoo experiments of Death Of A Ladies’ Man, 1979’s Recent Songs seemed to many like a return to form. But whether he’d admit it or not, Cohen picked up a thing or two from Spector. Recent Songs, while not a wall-to-wall mishmash of jazz-funk and doo-wop, is almost deceptively ambitious, bringing Cohen into the gypsy-folk moods that he’d return to over the course of subsequent records. He even makes a few detours into mariachi for “The Lost Canadian (Un Canadien Errant)” and “Ballad Of The Absent Mare.” Recent Songs also brings vocalist Jennifer Warnes—who met Cohen in 1971 and would collaborate on many of his albums—more into the mix. Besides singing backup on opener “The Guests,” Warnes joins in on the twinkly duet “The Smokey Life,” an album highlight.

Coming five years after Recent Songs is the most dismissed album in Cohen’s catalog, 1984’s Various Positions, which wasn’t even released in the United States by his longtime label, Columbia Records. (Only when Cohen’s discography was reissued on CD did Positions get a proper stateside release.) This indignity to one of Columbia’s most respected artists seems even more egregious considering that Positions includes Cohen’s best-known (though not necessarily best) song, “Hallelujah.” Once again working with New Skin For The Old Ceremony producer John Lissauer, Cohen incorporated synthesizers on the album-opening “Dance Me To The End Of Love” more subtly than he would on his next record, I’m Your Man, and overall the album’s high quality-to-crap ratio belies its reputation as a castoff.

Advanced studies
The follow-up to I’m Your Man, 1992’s The Future was less scandalous than its gear-shifting predecessor. But it’s also not as good. Sure, it may not have a single song as bad as I’m Your Man’s “Jazz Police,” but the synth-poppy shock of the new that hung over that record fades into a less well-defined digital backdrop on The Future. Now embracing his gravelly voice, Cohen rasps, “Lie beside me baby, that’s an order” on the record’s title track, shuffling into his late-game role as poet laureate of the lonely-hearted. (He also sings about wanting crack and anal sex, and killing babies, and all kinds of other nasty stuff that’s harder to get a bead on.) It’s not as cohesive as many of his best records, but plenty of The Future’s better songs (“Democracy,” “Closing Time,” “Anthem”) have landed fitting positions on Cohen’s half-dozen “Best Of “compilations.

Unlike many of the more recently released Leonard Cohen live records, which capture whole shows or cobble together a setlist from a single tour, 1994’s Cohen Live brings together 13 tracks cut between 1988 and 1993. It may not totally hang together, but it covers all the unforgettables, from “Bird On The Wire” to “Everybody Knows.” It also boasts a partially improvised, sultry version of “I’m Your Man” that sounds like its being sung over a MIDI file of the song (but in a good way). Most remarkably, Cohen Live opens with a swirling, thoroughly gypsy-fied, Warnes-backed, and utterly definitive take on “Dance Me To The End of Love” that, for many, planted the idea that hearing this unrequited romantic work through his sad-sack anthems live may be something truly extraordinary.

Cohen’s next two studio albums, 2001’s Ten New Songs and 2004’s Dear Heather, veer straight into adult-contemporary territory; even for a man with Cohen’s troublesome history with production choices, these albums don’t make it easy to get through all the slick, soulless cheese to the good stuff underneath. Of the two, Ten New Songs is the stronger effort, even if the presence of producer and co-writer Sharon Robinson (Cohen’s longtime backing singer) is a little much sometimes. But Cohen comes up with some convincing pop songs, like the slinky album opener “In My Secret Life.”

Demerits

Released just a few months after Cohen publicly alleged that his manager had pocketed some $5 million of his money, Book Of Longing reads a bit too much like a rushed-to-market cash-in. (The ensuing whirlwind sold-out book tour would set the stage for Cohen’s late-period reemergence.) His first book of poems since 1984’s Book Of Mercy, the 2006 collection slaps together verse written while Cohen was residing at a Zen monastery in California, along with sketches, lyrics from tunes appearing on Ten New Songs and Dear Heather, and older pieces of poetry dating back to the ’70s. A lot of the new poems read like diary entries put to verse, but any fan of Cohen’s work will likely get a kick out of the countless squiggly-lined self-portraits dotting the margins.

Miscellany

Cohen’s first novel, 1963’s The Favourite Game, may not be as essential or canonical as Beautiful Losers, but it’s a handy window into his early life growing up in Montreal. The Favourite Game’s protagonist, Lawrence Breavman, seems to be a roughly sketched version of the young Cohen, born to a traditional Jewish family living in Montreal’s Westmount neighborhood. Bristling with wit and longing (Breavman’s love interest, the intoxicating Shell, seems the template for every woman Cohen would pang over in his songs), this Künstlerroman is a lively portrait of the artist as a displaced, horny young man.

The biggest barrier keeping people from appreciating Cohen is his voice; as evidenced by the popularity of the oft-covered “Hallelujah”—a song that no less of an authority on mainstream tastes than Simon Cowell once declared as his personal favorite—Cohen’s talents as a lyricist and tunesmith are sometimes better appreciated when other people sing his material. A good place to start is 1991’s I’m Your Fan, where luminaries such as R.E.M., Pixies, Lloyd Cole, and Nick Cave present covers of their favorite Cohen tracks. I’m Your Fan also includes John Cale’s piano-ballad version of “Hallelujah,” which sits with Jeff Buckley’s iconic cover as one of the definitive performances of the song. 

Top 5

1. Songs Of Leonard Cohen
Emerging into the bourgeoning singer-songwriter movement of the late ’60s around the same time as contemporaries like Neil Young, Cohen already seemed like an elder statesman. Even his first record evinces a fully formed, highly literate approach to songcraft, and a world-weary wisdom that was well beyond his years.

2. Songs Of Love And Hate
Cohen’s bleakest album and one of his most moving, the album title brutally sums up the songs, while only scraping the surface of the personal wreckage contained within them.

3. I’m Your Man
Cohen’s curveball turn into synth-pop territory earned him a whole new generation of fans who, like Christian Slater in Pump Up The Volume, took his wizened cynicism as gospel.

4. Songs From A Room
With all the twangy jaw harp giving musical expression to his Jewish cultural identity, Cohen’s second record pushed his arrangements beyond the familiar songwriter-with-an-acoustic-guitar setup.

5. Death Of A Ladies’ Man
Ladies’ Man was the Lulu of its time, a widely loathed meeting of two geniuses with seemingly little in common. And yet in spite of being so wrong in so many ways, Ladies’ Man is also a compelling depiction of psychic destruction, too bonkers in its own unique way to be ignored.

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