An Introduction to Leonard Cohen: 10 Essential Songs
Leonard Cohen used to like to tell the story of how his passion for poetry was ignited by a second-hand book of poems by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca in a bookshop in Montreal. Aged 15, he opened the book and read the lines ‘I want to pass through the arches of Elvira, to see her thighs and begin weeping’. It was supposedly at this moment that the young Leonard Cohen knew that ‘there was another world and [he] wanted to be in it’, and it altered his life completely. I particularly like this story because I had a similar experience about half a century later. In my case it was a gradual awakening rather than a sudden realisation, and the poet responsible was Leonard Cohen himself.
By the time I was coming to decide that Leonard Cohen was my Federico Garcia Lorca, Cohen himself was an old man. He had spent his life searching for the arches, the thighs and the tears; and, in the process, had produced a varied and unique body of work. His name was one that I was familiar with, but his work remained enigmatic and somewhat inaccessible. And yet I was beginning for the first time to feel some kind of deep connection with some of the songs and poems – certain lines were jumping out at me. They didn’t carry the same punch as Dylan’s lines, but they were beautiful and dignified. Above all else, they were intimate and human. Below are ten songs which provide an overview of Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre, and capture in an accessible way many of the enduring themes that characterise his work: love, loneliness, God, and the interconnected nature of all three.
10 – Suzanne
Leonard Cohen’s debut single is also one of his most poetic and enduring songs. First published as a poem, the song was later recorded by Judy Collins before Cohen recorded it as the opening track on his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
The rich imagery is juxtaposed with a cyclical, haunting melody and a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. Combined with soft and beautiful female backing vocals, the overall effect is entirely enchanting. Now a standard of 1960s music, Suzanne serves as a shining example of what Leonard Cohen songs are all about: it is hypnotic, melancholic, and achingly beautiful.
Key Line: “And you know that she’s half crazy / But that’s why you want to be there”
9 – Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye
Also from Songs of Leonard Cohen, this song is a fine example of how the simplest songs are often also the most beautiful and moving.
It isn’t exactly Cohen’s most famous song, but it is an excellent example of his ability to capture the universal feeling of sadness towards the transient nature of love and life, and to do so with dignity and beauty.
Key Line: “You know my love goes with you, as your love stays with me / It’s just the way it changes like the shoreline and the sea”
8 – So Long, Marianne
The third and final song on this list from Cohen’s debut album is his five-minute farewell to his former lover and muse, Marianne Ihlen. While Dylan was busy penning his famous anti-love songs, full of bitterness and spite, Leonard Cohen was working on another kind of break-up song altogether – one full of appreciation and unconditional love, and void of any resentment.
Whilst the content is of a characteristically sombre nature, the tone of the song is markedly brighter and more upbeat than the others on the album. It is one of Cohen’s most popular songs, and has remained something of an anthem among his fans for half a century.
Key Line: “We met when we were almost young / Deep in the green, lilac park / You held on to me like I was a crucifix / As we went kneeling through the dark”
7 – Bird On The Wire
Perhaps a more challenging song for those new to Leonard Cohen and who have only heard of him referred to as a writer of ‘depressing’ songs, the opening track from Cohen’s second album, Songs From a Room, is nonetheless one of his much-loved signature songs.
Described in the sleeve-notes to a 2007 rerelease as “a kind of bohemian ‘My Way’”, it is another excellent example of Cohen’s ability to simultaneously express the deeply personal and the poignantly universal – and to do so with remarkable brevity in the context of very simple songs.
Key Line: “Like a bird on the wire / Like a drunk in some old midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free”
6 – Famous Blue Raincoat
Songs of Love and Hate is perhaps Cohen’s darkest album, and is something of an acquired taste. However, once you break past the seemingly self-indulgent melancholia, you discover a virtually faultless classic. Every song on the album is a masterpiece, but even in such distinguished company, Famous Blue Raincoat stands out.
Like Bird On The Wire, the songs is slow and sombre. Its lyrics are written in the format of a letter – even ending with the line “Sincerely, L. Cohen” – and concern a love-triangle between the singer and two others.
Key Line: ‘And what can I tell you my brother, my killer / What can I possibly say? / I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you / I’m glad that you stood in my way”
5 – Chelsea Hotel #2
This elegy for Janis Joplin has a tendency to divide opinion: while some people hold it to be one of Cohen’s greatest masterpieces, others claim that the lyrics are not as poetic as Cohen’s usually are – and that they in fact border on being cheap and distasteful. Cohen himself said that he regretted identifying Joplin as the inspiration for the song, saying that “a gentleman should never talk about his mistress or his tailor”.
Key Line: “And clenching your fists for the ones like us, who are oppressed by the figures of beauty / You fixed yourself and said ‘well, never mind, we are ugly but we have the music’”
4 – Dance Me to the End of Love
This song, which has been described as “trembling on the brink of becoming a standard”, is a beautiful example of Cohen’s ability to draw on his various cultural and spiritual influences, and to combine them seamlessly within a single song.
The song follows the pattern of a traditional Greek hasapiko dance, capturing the important impact that Cohen’s time on the Greek island of Hydra had on his work and his life. And whilst structured like a love song, the song’s lyrics in fact subtly reference the Holocaust – a reminder that Cohen’s Jewish background was always an immense influence on his work and his general worldview.
Key Line: “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin / Dance me through the panic ‘till I’m gathered safely in / Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove / Dance me to the end of love”
3 – Everybody Knows
Everybody Knows is surprisingly political for a Leonard Cohen song, but as a piece of social commentary it manages to rise above the pettiness of everyday politics and make a much subtler, more artistic statement about the nature of human civilisation.
Cohen manages to remain mysterious and somehow unpartisan, whilst simultaneously delivering a damning critique of modern society. The song is unashamedly pessimistic, but not particularly bitter or angry. It is a Leonard Cohen classic, and whilst it doesn’t get the attention that it deserves, its content makes it undoubtedly one of the defining songs of our times.
Key Line: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed / Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight is fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich “
2 – Anthem
1992’s The Future is a standout album in Cohen’s career, and contains many of his most famous and popular songs. The lyrics to many of the songs continue to demonstrate a greater and more direct engagement with social and political issues, whilst maintaining Cohen’s penchant for intimacy and introspection.
But Anthem holds a special place in the hearts of many Leonard Cohen fans, as the song that gave us that famous line which so perfectly captures so much of what Cohen’s work is all about…
Key Line: “Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”
1 – Hallelujah
I have chosen to disrupt the otherwise chronological structure of this list in order to end the article with the only Leonard Cohen song famous and popular enough that it outshines even his debut single.
In a society where popular culture is increasingly secular and temporal, Leonard Cohen somehow managed to make a pop song out of a prayer. Hallelujah is Cohen’s undisputed magnus opus, and it beautifully expresses the most fundamental themes of his life and work. Not only is Cohen’s trademark fusion of the sacred with the profane perhaps more perfectly captured in the lyrics to Hallelujah than in any other song in his repertoire, but the music itself is also sublime. The melody has an almost liturgical quality and the chord progression ingeniously traces the lyrics (“[C] it goes like this, [F] the fourth, [G] the fifth, [Am] the minor fall, [F] the major lift").
Hallelujah is an anthem for soul-searchers and holy sinners, and is a very spiritual affirmation of human imperfection and unknowingness before God. Exploring the process of searching for God through experience and experimentation, the song deals with the contrarieties that lie between the bedroom and the alter – places that Cohen considered interchangeable. In his own words, “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say ‘Look, I don’t understand a f****** thing at all – Hallelujah!’”
Key Line: “And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah’”