Leonard Cohen died yesterday, at age 82. His music was unique and beautiful–epic and soaring at times, and mournful and personal at others. He was funny in his sad songs, and his lighthearted songs carried a poignancy that could hit you square in the stomach. His career as a musician started late–there are few pop stars who begin their careers already in their mid-thirties, but Cohen was 33 when Songs of Leonard Cohen introduced him to the music world. He had been a novelist before that, of course–his Beautiful Losers and The Favorite Game are fine pieces of the kind of “lost young man” literature that might have made him a successor to Kerouac or Bukowski had he not traded fiction for music in the interest of making some money over the course of his career.
And what a career it was. Cohen abandoned fiction in the mid-’60s, but not literature. His songs were uncommonly bent toward poetics, and as a poet whose words were meant to live on the page, the pages on which they lived included five books of poetry and magazines including The New Yorker, which published its latest Leonard Cohen poem just earlier this year.
As a musician, Cohen was exacting. He was a timid performer for many of his earlier years, albeit one with a voice that carried great authority. In 1970, at the Isle of Wight Festival in the U.K., Cohen became a soothing presence, awoken in his bed at 4am to soothe an agitated crowd that had booed Kris Kristofferson off the stage and set fires during Jimi Hendrix’s performance–and he told and sang stories, creating a spell that brought peace to the 600,000 people who had gathered at the festival.
He was the kind of performer who could do that. He continued his touring career intermittently, including world tours from 2008-2010 and 2012-2013, proving that his voice could stop time in theaters in Romania and Israel, could enrapture crowds at Coachella and Glastonbury. He may have been most famous, in his later years, for “Hallelujah”–a track that appeared in a synth-heavy, awkward form on 1984’s uneven Various Positions, but which became one of the most celebrated compositions in the American songbook after recordings (based on a cover by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale) from Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, and countless others elevated it to a staple that soared to celebrate both the sacred and the profane. When Cohen would play “Hallelujah” on those tours, it was Cale’s version that he would sing, and if his voice didn’t find the prophesied secret chord, it nonetheless transformed those who heard his prayer of the pains and pleasures of both spirit and flesh.
But Cohen’s later years didn’t leave him a legacy act. That’s perhaps the most fascinating thing about him as a creative force. In his early years, he was exacting (read: slow) as a songwriter. He famously told Bob Dylan that “Hallelujah” took him two years to write, when it really took five, and gaps like that were not unheard of in his discography. He took five years between 1979’s Recent Songs and 1984’s Various Positions, spent much of the nine years between 1992’s The Future and 2001’s Ten New Songs atop a mountain living as a Buddhist monk, and waited eight years between 2004’s Dear Heather and 2012’s Old Ideas. But Old Ideas was the start of something, not the end; he followed that album in 2014 with Popular Problems and followed that one up last month with You Want It Darker, which will now exist as Leonard Cohen’s final musical statement to the world.
Those albums aren’t afterthoughts tacked on to a legendary career, though. There may not be an “Hallelujah” or an “Anthem” or an “If It Be Your Will” on them–but few albums by any other artist contain songs as potent as those. As you mourn Leonard Cohen today, there are songs that he wrote and recorded in his late ’70s and early ’80s that speak to his creative vitality, and to the idea that there is no true end to an artist’s career, save death, if they possess the urge to create.
“Amen,” Old Ideas
“Amen” is a classic Cohen, and not just because its prayerful title and chorus recalls the most famous song in his discography. It’s poignant and political, a search for meaning in a world in which a higher power is hard to believe in–“Tell me again when the filth of the butcher is washed in the blood of the lamb,” Cohen sings as his longtime collaborator, Sharon Robinson, sings the “ooh-ooohs” and harmonies on the word “Amen” that lift the song’s despair into something that feels more like yearning.
“Darkness,” Old Ideas
“Darkness” is one of Cohen’s “waiting to die” songs, but that’s not really a result of the advanced age he carried as he sang it–he’d been writing songs like that since at least 1971’s “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” and in fact his perspective on mortality only got more optimistic (if only by comparison) in the decades that followed. “Darkness” displays the wry sense of humor that Cohen could bring into a song about mortality with a title like “Darkness,” as he opines to a faceless lover that “I don’t smoke no cigarette, I don’t drink no alcohol / I ain’t had much loving yet, but that’s always been your call.”
“Almost Like The Blues,” Popular Problems
Cohen’s songs often evoked the power of music directly. He sang of songs, over melodies that referenced the tunes of the past. “Almost Like The Blues” is a darkly comedic example of that in action, with Cohen painting an apocalyptic portrait of the world (“there’s torture and there’s killing, and there’s all my bad reviews,” he sings with a smirk, “the war, the children missing”) before bringing the punchline–“Lord, it’s almost like the blues.” Few singers have evoked imagery that captures end times in detail, yet with such an economy of language, but “Almost Like The Blues” is the sort of thing that Cohen makes look easy.
“A Street,” Popular Problems
Cohen loved to sing-speak over a vamping R&B line, and his gifts as a writer always made it easy to ride the narrative he crafted. “A Street” is one of the more compelling such narratives. It’s not as apocalyptic as “Almost Like The Blues,” but that just makes it more stunning when he delivers a line like “I’ll be standing on this corner where there used to be a street,” evoking destruction with an unmatched subtlety and grace–something that somehow still feels of a kind to the horny letter he writes to an unnamed lover (“you put on a uniform to fight the civil war / you looked so good, I didn’t care what side you were fighting for”), unfolding like a dream alongside Robinson’s backing vocals.
“Leaving The Table,” You Want It Darker
Before the release of You Want It Darker, a letter that Cohen wrote to Marianne Ihlen, the inspiration for classics like “So Long, Marianne,” as she lay dying became public. In it, he wrote, “Our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.” He did, but that wasn’t the only eulogy that he wrote for himself. “Leaving The Table” is a mournful waltz about accepting the inevitability of an ending. Few writers are given the opportunity to say goodbye as formally as Cohen did on You Want It Darker, and as frailty claims a person’s body, the opportunity to create art out of it through its final gasps is a gift that Cohen embraced–and gave to us.