A song a decade from the 50 years of Leonard Cohen’s music
Leonard Cohen released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967 (though he had already been publishing poetry for over ten years by then), and his latest, You Want It Darker, came out last month, 49 years after his debut and just three weeks before he sadly passed away. In the five decades in between, he never stopped releasing music. There may have been some lengthy gaps in there, but Leonard was a musical force in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, and '10s, competing with peers and younger artists that he himself influenced alike. In honor of Leonard's rich career, here's one great song from all five of the past decades.
"So Long, Marianne" (1967)
The '60s is probably the hardest decade to pick just one Leonard Cohen song from, as his debut album is truly perfect and his 1969 sophomore LP is just about as great. His debut single "Suzanne" may have started it all, but followup single "So Long, Marianne" was the grandest song on that album. Its gorgeous vocal harmonies in the chorus predicted an approach Leonard would take time and time again. The woman who inspired it, Marianne Ihlen, passed away just months before Leonard.
Leonard's first three albums are the trilogy that started it all, and the conclusion to that trilogy, Songs of Love and Hate, is the darkest of the three. That tone is set right away with album opener "Avalanche," a fine example of Leonard's minimal folk songs and nimble guitar playing. It's also apparently the first Leonard Cohen song that Nick Cave ever heard, and Nick's own version of the song (the first track on 1984's From Her to Eternity) has become equally legendary.
If you're of a certain generation, there's a good chance the first time you heard this song was either Jeff Buckley's cover or Rufus Wainwright's, and there's also a good chance one of those cover versions stuck with you most. (When you hear this song at open mic nights, it's not usually Leonard's gravelly version that's being channelled.) But the original still sounds magical today. Even if you're sometimes a little tired of hearing this one, it can still totally floor you at the right moment.
"The Future" (1992)
The title track off the only album Leonard released in the '90s continued the poppier vibes he started adapting in the '80s. Even if the backing track on its own could sound like a Don Henley song, Leonard's wise rasp, the gospel-tinged backing vocals, and the dark poetic lyrics keep it in his distinct world. "I've seen the future, brother. It is murder."
"A Thousand Kisses Deep" (2001)
The title of 2001's Ten New Songs makes it seem like it'll be a return to his folk days -- the way 1979's Recent Songs was -- but it's in fact closer to the polished pop of his '80s and '90s days. Still, even with the shiny arrangements, "A Thousand Kisses Deep" remains one of Leonard's most haunting songs. His voice is deep and ominous. When he sings, "I'm turning tricks, I'm getting fixed, I'm back on Boogie Street," it manages to sound like a threat.
"You Want It Darker" (2016)
Leonard was on a creative hot streak right up until his death, with three high-quality albums out this decade. 2012's Old Ideas, 2014's Popular Problems, and this year's You Want It Darker feels like yet another trilogy for Leonard, and it neatly bookends his career with the first trilogy. Like in that trilogy, the third and final album is the darkest. This time it's right in the title. You Want It Darker is also the best album Leonard's put out in a very long time, and an amazing, yet bittersweet, way to go out. He never sounds creepier than he does on the title track, which is even eerier given this week's events. We'll never hear "Hineni, Hineni / I'm ready my lord" the same way again.