Music / Leonard Cohen
I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah

"I don't know. It has a good chorus."
Leonard Cohen, on why "Hallelujah" is so popular

Leonard Cohen is a Canadian poet and singer-songwriter. He is known for his wry, melancholic and frequently beautiful lyrics, his ever-present cluster of angelic back-up singers, his fascination with religion and spirituality, and that voice, good lord. Cohen began his career as a writer, with two collections of poetry that received good reviews, but his later material didn't do as well, so he became a singer-songwriter due to his lack of financial success. His first album, the snappily titled Songs of Leonard Cohen, was released in 1967; it met with critical acclaim, mediocre sales and a lasting cult status, something that could be said for his entire career to date. After a decline in popularity from the mid-1970s onward, he released the incisive, satirical I'm Your Man in 1988. Widely considered one of his best albums, it effectively rebooted his career and cemented his status as a cult figure.

Something of an acquired taste due to his minimalistic approach to music, often dark tone and average-to-middling ability to actually sing in tune, Cohen is nevertheless regarded as one of the finest and most influential songwriters alive today. His songs have been frequently covered by other artists, with "Hallelujah" - most famously covered by Jeff Buckley on Grace - being the most prominent example, and he was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.

Cohen is private and something of a hermit (he spent many years living in a Zen commune atop Mount Baldy, where he was known as Jikan, "The Silent One"), but after 2005, where his manager, Kelley Lynch, almost completely emptied his pension account and ran away with the money, Cohen started touring again in 2008 at age 73. He has continued to do so through 2012, and does not show signs of stopping any time soon.

Also, Phil Spector once threatened him with a loaded gun. But that's not important.


Selected Bibliography

  • Let Us Compare Mythologies (Poetry) (1956)
  • The Spice-Box of Earth (Poetry) (1961)
  • The Favourite Game (Novel) (1963)
  • Flowers For Hitler (Poetry) (1964)
  • Beautiful Losers (Novel) (1966)
  • The Book of Mercy (Poetry) (1984)
  • The Book of Longing (Poetry) (2006)

Tropes about this musician include:

  • As the Good Book Says: He frequently references The Bible.
  • Basso Profundo: One of the best-known examples.
  • Bilingual Bonus: In "The Partisan" some lines are in French.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: The narrator of Beautiful Losers.
    Le triomphe du Mal sur le Bien.
  • Cool Old Guy: Among other things, he skips on and off-stage at concerts and donated $200,000 to the Australian bushfire appeal.
  • Crapsack World: A frequently-occurring trope in his work:
    • "The Future":
    I've seen the future, baby; it is murder
    • "Everybody Knows":
    Everybody knows that the war is over
    Everybody knows the good guys lost
    Everybody knows the fight was fixed
    The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
  • The Cynic: His songs are frequently pessimistic, such as in "Everybody Knows".
  • Deadpan Snarker: His interviews are frequently hilarious.
    • From an interview with Suzanne Vega, 1992:
      Cohen: Do you have your band put together yet?
      Vega: No.
      C: Can I play in it?
      V: What would you like to play?
      C: I don't know.
      V: You could sing; you could be a back-up singer.
      C: Congas!
      V: It's like I always go see you perform, you always have two very beautiful women standing by you.
      C: I could be one of the beautiful women standing beside you.
    • When The Future (his most successful album in Canada) gained him a Juno Award for Best Male Vocalist, he mentioned in his acceptance speech that "Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win Vocalist of the Year."
    • When he played Edinburgh Castle in 2008, it was a cold and windy outdoor show and keyboardist Neil Larsen dropped a couple of minor but noticeable clams during a solo. As Cohen introduced the band a few minutes later, he gave the tiniest bit of emphasis to "the impeccable Neil Larsen."
  • For Want of a Nail: His music saved Roger Ebert's life. Ebert was in the hospital for cancer treatment, and it looked like the surgery had been a success. He and his wife were getting ready to leave, but Cohen's song "I'm Your Man" starting playing on his iPod and Ebert chose to linger for a bit so he could listen to his song. Just after it ended, though, his cartoid artery burst and Ebert collapsed in the room. Lucky for him, he was already in the hospital, so his life was saved. Had he not waited to listen to Cohen, Ebert would have been a car bleeding profusely, with a much slimmer chance of reaching his doctors again.
  • God-Is-Love Songs: Numerous songs, but the most direct example is "Coming Back To You". It starts "Baby, I'm still hurting, and I can't turn the other cheek/You know that I still love you, it's just that I can't speak" - and it soon becomes clear that the "Baby" in question is God (or possibly Judaism in general).
  • Gratuitous French: In "The Partisan" some lines are in French.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: "Last Year's Man"
  • Intercourse with You: He has a reputation.
    • From Cohen's translation of a Garcia Lorca poem:
      Oh, I want you, I want you, I want you
      On a chair with a dead magazine
    • "Light as the Breeze", a lovely little song about the technique one should employ when performing oral sex.
    • In "Chelsea Hotel #2", a lovely song written for Janis Joplin, he so lovingly sings
      I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
      You were talking so brave and so sweet
      Giving me head on the unmade bed
      While the limousine is waiting in the street
  • Irony: Songs of Love and Hate have some of Cohen's bleakest and most depressing lyrics in his whole catalogue. It's one of the only album covers to show him smiling.
  • Isn't It Ironic?:
    • "Hallelujah" is probably the worst offender. It's not supposed to be a happy song!
    • Cohen was reportedly greatly amused by the non-ironic use of "Democracy" (a scathing, wry little statement about American society) as a patriotic ballad. I mean, for heaven's sake:
      I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
      I love the country, but I can't stand the scene
      And I'm neither left nor right, I'm just staying home tonight
      Getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
      But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay,
      I'm junk, but I'm still holding up this little wild bouquet.
      Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
  • It's Personal:
    I don't like your fashion business, mister
    I don't like these drugs that keep you thin.
    I don't like what happened to my sister.
    First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
  • Lyrical Dissonance:
    • "Heart with No Companion" has a bouncy, jaunty melody and introduction. And then the first line...
    So I greet you from the other side
    Of sorrow and despair!
    • "The Captain" has an upbeat, bouncy tune and a rather dark subject matter.
  • Long Runner: His first album came out in 1967. That's a whole eleven years after the publication of his first book of poetry.
  • Mind Screw: Cohen's lyrics are usually near impossible to decipher but Songs of Love and Hate is probably the worst offender, "Avalanche" in particular.
  • New Sound Album: I'm Your Man has elements of synth-pop with his normal folk-rock.
  • Nice Hat: He can rock a charcoal fedora.
    "It was the hat, after all."
  • Nice Jewish Old Man
  • Not Christian Rock: Scriptural and religious imagery appears often in Cohen's lyrics, but not always as a statement of faith. The best-known example is "Hallelujah," which dwells on the biblical stories of David and Samson but is really more of a Breakup Song.
  • Offing the Offspring: "The Story of Isaac", which retells... well, the story of Isaac.
  • Outdoor Bath Peeping: In "Hallelujah":
    Well, your faith was strong but you needed proof
    You saw her bathing on the roof
    Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
  • Sanity Slippage Song: "Dress Rehearsal Rag" and "Diamonds In The Mine". But several other songs from the album Songs Of Love And Hate could qualify.
  • Self-Deprecation: Cohen is well aware of his vocal limitations, and occasionally pokes fun at them himself. Besides the above-mentioned snark about how "only in Canada" he could win a prize for Best Male Vocalist, he sings in "Tower of Song" that he was "born with the gift of a golden voice" and in "A Singer Must Die" that its sound makes the ladies "moist".
    • He once told a story about the beginning of his musical career, when he was about to go on stage at some festival in the late 60s and he suddenly had an attack of stage fright. He turned to his manager and said "Listen, I don't know what I'm doing here, this is ridiculous — I can't sing." His manager replied "None of you guys can sing. If I want to hear singing, I go to the opera."
  • Soprano and Gravel: The majority of his songs are sung with a back-up chorus of female sopranos.
  • Stylistic Suck: The vocals in "Diamonds in the Mine" are ragged and off-key.
  • This Is a Song: "Hallelujah" spells out its own chord progression (see the page quote).
  • Villain Song: "First We Take Manhattan".
  • Vocal Evolution: He started out as a middling nasally tenor. His earlier records sound positively soprano when compared to his later ones; over forty years, his voice has dropped to a distinctive rumble, and it seems to be getting deeper with every album. Dear Heather was positively subsonic. He claims that he has one more album left in him; presumably, only dogs will be able to hear it.
  • A World Half Full:
  • From "The Old Revolution":
    Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows.