Leonard Cohen, who for about fifty years was the world’s greatest lyricist, has died at the age of 82.
It’s not even the worst thing that’s happened this week, but it still hurts—as if the universe thought we hadn’t had our fill of pain and heartache. Coming at the end of a year where we’ve lost some of our best artists and songwriters, it stings even more.
Leonard never attained the fame and recognition of Bob Dylan, but he was every bit his equal as a songwriter. He wrote melancholy, sly, sad, hilarious lyrics that might as well have been poems: strip away the music and they would still retain their power to surprise and haunt you. He had an exquisite sense of irony and a way of keeping you laughing even as he gutted you with uncomfortable truths about the bleakness of living.
His musical career can be pretty neatly divided up into three periods. If you’re just discovering Leonard for the first time, here’s where I’d begin.
The Early Period
Songs of Leonard Cohen, the album that launched Cohen’s career at the age of 32, kicks off with what is arguably the best song he ever wrote, “Suzanne.” He sings of a romance that seems hallucinatory and not of this earth, but with a perfect attention to details (“tea and oranges that come all the way from China”) that keeps it from ever descending into sentimentality. Threaded through the song are dream-like images and religious metaphors—the entire second verse imagines Jesus as a drowning sailor—that would become a Cohen trademark:
“But he himself was broken long before the sky could open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.”
Also worth noting from this period is “Famous Blue Raincoat,” from his third album, a song written in the form of a letter to an imagined ex-lover. Listening to it, you can almost feel the chill of a cold December morning seeping in through the cracks in your Brooklyn apartment.
The Middle Period
Leonard’s later music is so different from the songs of his youth that it can sometimes feel like listening to two different singers. In the middle period (which lasted for much of the 1970s) he had shed some of his dreamy wistfulness and begun to write music that was sharp, scathing and satirical.
The best album from this period, and in my opinion the finest album he ever made, was 1979’s Recent Songs. Almost every song on this record is a gem, but “The Traitor” stands out for its savage use of irony in service of a story about doomed love and betrayal, and “The Window” for being a hauntingly beautiful poetic and theological reflection on—what exactly? I’m not sure, but it’s hard to hear lyrics like these without getting chills:
“Then lay your rose on the fire
The fire give up to the sun
The sun give over to splendor
In the arms of the high holy one
For the holy one dreams of a letter
Dreams of a letter’s death
Oh, bless the continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh”
Like the poetry of James Joyce or Lewis Carroll, the words almost take on a shape of their own, even apart from their intended meaning.
If your only exposure to Leonard has been the thin baritone of his early music, the bass-voiced, synth-heavy songs of his later years may come as a shock. He wrote and recorded “Hallelujah” in 1984 with a hundred-person choir, but few would argue that this is the best recording of the song ever made. (Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainright both improved the song by stripping it to its essentials).
But beginning in the 1990s Leonard put away the choirs and baroque instrumentation and wrote some of the best music of his career. My favorite album from this period is 1992’s The Future, which gifted us with “Closing Time,” “The Anthem” (probably his most-quoted song, even by people who have never heard it), and “Democracy.” Cohen’s lyrics have become wide-ranging, referential, and universal in scope and subject, the way you might think of Walt Whitman as being universal, without ever losing their sharpness. Take this verse from “Democracy”:
“It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all
It’s coming from the silence on the dock of the bay
From the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming
To the USA”
It’s all here: Leonard’s allusiveness, his sly humor, imagery that comes at you out of nowhere, his obsession with religion, his knack for playing one final joke on the listener. It may seem like an odd song to pull out of the Cohen catalogue but it exemplifies who he was and what made him a rare genius in contemporary popular music.