Now 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
- 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.
- Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
- Songs From A Room (1969)
- Songs of Love and Hate (1971)
- New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)
- Death of a Ladies' Man (1977)
- Recent Songs (1979)
- Various Positions a.k.a. The One With "Hallelujah" On It (1984)
- I'm Your Man (1988)
- The Future (1992)
- Ten New Songs (2001)
- Dear Heather (2004)
- Old Ideas (2012)
- 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 Longing (Poetry) (2006)
- 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"
- Creator Breakdown: Cohen has spent his entire career struggling with clinical depression. His darkest album, Songs of Love and Hate, came out of an especially troubled time; it is considered one of his best offerings by critics, but is not popular with the general public because it's just so dark. (Cohen himself states that he has trouble listening to it, and it is under-represented on his Best Of album, which he chose the songs for himself.)
- Songs of Love and Hate includes the song "Dress Rehearsal Rag", which is notable for - despite Cohen frequently being derided for writing "wrist-slitting songs" - being the only song that actually mentions wrist-slitting.
- Finally, and ironically, despite this being easily his bleakest album, it's the only album cover where he's smiling.
- Deadpan Snarker: His interviews are frequently hilarious.
From an interview with Suzanne Vega
Cohen: Do you have your band put together yet?
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.
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. Here's how: 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 best example is possibly "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, er, God (or possibly Judaism in general).
- Gratuitous French: Not exactly gratuitous, of course, since Cohen is Canadian and thus speaks French as well as English.
- In "The Partisan" some lines are in French.
- Gray Rain of Depression: "Last Year's Man"
- Intercourse with You: He has a reputation.
Oh, I want you, I want you, I want you
On a chair with a dead magazine
- Not the straightest use of this trope as it's Cohen's translation of a Garcia Lorca poem, a better example may be "Light as the Breeze", a lovely little song about the technique one should employ when performing oral sex.
- Another example, but much less subtle than the above: 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
- Isn't It Ironic?: "Hallelujah" is probably the worst offender. It's not supposed to be a happy song!
- Cohen was also 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.
- 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 also has a rather upbeat, bouncy tune and a rather dark subject matter.
- Nice Hat: He can rock a charcoal fedora.
"It was the hat, after all."
- Offing the Offspring: "The Story of Isaac", which retells... well, the story of Isaac.
- Old Shame:
- His stated opinions of Death of a Ladies Man are more positive now than they used to be, but he still refers to it as a "noble travesty" (direct quote). His fans are inclined to agree. It wasn't his fault entirely, though. Phil Spector apparently abducted the tapes at gunpoint and did his own thing with them; reports vary as to what actually happened, but there was definitely a gun involved, as well as a declaration of love.
- His daughter, on the other hand, apparently loves it.
- Another example is the above quoted song "Chelsea Hotel #2". In his younger days, he always dedicated the song to Janis Joplin, making it clear that it was her he was singing about. This was rather bold, due to the song's highly sexual and erotic content. He now regrets ever having done this.
- 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.
- Rage Against the Reflection: "Dress Rehearsal Rag"
- Sanity Slippage Song: "Dress Rehearsal Rag" again 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".
- Soprano and Gravel: The majority of his songs are sung with a back-up chorus of female sopranos.
- This Is a Song: "Hallelujah" spells out its own chord progression (see the page quote).
- 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: "Anthem", definitely. He has some similar songs that veer more into Crapsack World, but might still have the requisite sense of beauty and empowerment simply by virtue of being stirring music.