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Music / Leonard Cohen

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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 Norman Cohen CC (September 21, 1934 – November 7, 2016) was a Canadian poet, singer and songwriter known for his wry, melancholic, and frequently beautiful lyrics, his ever-present cluster of angelic female back-up singers, his fascination with religion and spirituality, and that voice, good lord.

A native of Montreal, Cohen started his career as a writer of poetry and fiction. His first two collections 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 debut 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 to hold true for the rest of his career. After a decline in popularity from the mid-1970s onward, Cohen 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, the frequently dark tone of his lyrics, and his average-to-middling ability to actually sing in tune, Cohen is nevertheless regarded as one of the finest and most influential songwriters of his time. His songs have often been 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 and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.

Cohen was 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 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. The event triggered a new creative period for Cohen, who would continue touring into the early 2010s, and release three new albums two years apart, starting in 2012, with Old Ideas. On October 21, 2016, he released what would turn out to be his last album, You Want it Darker, which appropriately enough had acceptance of mortality as a central theme. Three weeks later, on November 7, he passed away.

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)
  • The Flame (Poetry) (2018) (posthumous release)

Tropes about this musician include:

  • As the Good Book Says...: He frequently references The Bible.
  • Author Catch Phrase / Author Vocabulary Calendar: He had a penchant for the word "naked", which features in at least a dozen of his recorded songs — including the opening line of "Light as the Breeze" (The Future) and the refrain of "Memories" (Death of a Ladies' Man). "Beauty" shows up frequently as well.
  • Badass Long Coat: Wore one in the music video for "First We Take Manhattan" and on the cover of Songs From The Road.
  • Basso Profundo: One of the best-known examples, though it only started to set in during the eighties; his voice on his seventies records is noticeably higher. He remarked that when he started recording 1984's Various Positions after a five year break, his voice had deepened almost an octave, and it only got deeper.
    Cohen: My voice really started to change around 1982. It started to deepen and I started to cop to the fact that it was deepening.
  • 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.
  • Celebrity Resemblance: To Dustin Hoffman and, of all people, Adam Sandler.
  • 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."
    • When held at gunpoint by Phil Spector for the master tapes to Death of a Ladies' Man:
      Spector: I love you, Leonard.
      Cohen: I hope you love me, Phil.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: He released his fourteenth album less than a month before his death.
  • Epic Rocking: Cohen has quite a few songs that exceed five minutes, usually owing to the number of distinct verses. (He was known to write dozens of verses while composing a song, and then whittle them down as he refined it.) On The Future, there are only two tracks under six minutes long—one being a cover, and the other an instrumental.
  • Flowery Elizabethan English: "Bird on the Wire" uses "thee" a couple times, as an ironic reflection of the line "Like a knight from some old fashioned book".
  • 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, Ebert's carotid artery burst and he 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 in 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"
  • Hair Memento: In the song Famous Blue Raincoat:
    Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair
    She said that you gave it to her
    The night that you planned to go clear
  • I Was Quite a Looker: While his songwriting probably did more for him in the romance department than his appearance ever did, it's hard to deny that he had some pretty rugged good looks in his younger days.
  • Intentionally Awkward Title: "Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On"
  • 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
      In the cave at the tip of the lily
      In some hallway where love's never been...
    • "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! Its allegorical lyrics have lent itself to being covered a myriad of ways by different artists, varying in tone from despair to triumphant.
    • 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
  • Longest Song Goes First:
    • New Skin for the Old Ceremony opens with the 4:13 "Is This What You Wanted". The only other song on the album that breaks four minutes is "Take This Longing", which is seven seconds shorter than the opener.
    • Recent Songs starts with "The Guests", which at 6:40 is only one of three Epic Rocking songs on the record, alongside the 6:16 "The Traitor" and the 6:26 "Ballad of the Absent Mare".
    • I'm Your Man kicks off with the six-minute "First We Take Manhattan", which just barely outpaces the 5:59 "Take This Waltz" for the position of the album's longest track.
    • You Want It Darker begins with the 4:44 Title Track; the second-longest song on the album is the 4:23 "Steer Your Way".
    • Thanks For the Dance begins with the four-and-a-half-minute "Happens to the heart". The next longest song on the album is the 4:17 "The Hills".
  • Love Is Like Religion: Just try to find a Leonard Cohen song that doesn't describe a bittersweet romantic/sexual situation while making use of intricate (occasionally incomprehensible) symbolism and copious religious imagery. For example, while its literal message has been variously interpreted, Cohen’s "Hallelujah" combines lost-love tropes with a lot of Biblical Motifs.
  • 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 can sometimes be...opaque. Songs of Love and Hate is probably the worst offender, "Avalanche" in particular.
  • New Sound Album:
    • New Skin for the Old Ceremony used a greater variety of instruments than previous albums.
    • Death of a Ladies' Man was full-fledged pop rock with some folk influences.
    • Various Positions saw Cohen move to a modern adult contemporary sound.
    • I'm Your Man brings in an abundance of synthesizers and drum machines, combining Cohen's folk-oriented songwriting with Italo Disco-inspired production.
  • Nice Jewish Old Man
  • Noodle Implements: "First We Take Manhattan" veers into the surreal at one point:
    And I thank you for those items that you sent me
    The monkey and the plywood violin...
  • Offing the Offspring: "The Story of Isaac", which retells... well, the story of Isaac.
  • Ominous Hebrew Chanting: The titular song from "You Want It Darker" features backing vocals from the Shaar Hashomayin Synagogue Choir.
  • 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
  • Religion Rant Song: "You Want It Darker" is a rant against God Himself . . . to God Himself.
    Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
    Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
    A million candles burning for the help that never came
  • Revenge: The viewpoint character of “First We Take Manhattan” has a grudge:
    They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
    For trying to change the system from within
    I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them
    First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin...
  • Rummage Sale Reject: The title character in "Suzanne" is described as dressing this way: "She's wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters."
  • 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 was well aware of his vocal limitations, and occasionally poked fun at them himself. Besides the above-mentioned snark about how "only in Canada" he could win a prize for Best Male Vocalist, he sang 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."
    • The final verse of "Hallelujah" begins with "I did my best; it wasn't much."
  • Signature Headgear: As the page image shows, he could sure rock a charcoal fedora.
    "It was the hat, after all."
  • Soprano and Gravel: The majority of his songs are sung with a back-up chorus of female sopranos.
  • Stop and Go: "Hallelujah" has a pause between two of the "Hallelujah"s towards the end in which all instruments stop.
  • 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).
    • "Bird on the Wire"
      But I swear by this song
      And by all that I have done wrong
      I will make it all up to thee.
    • "Take This Waltz" is a waltz.
  • Title-Only Chorus: "Hallelujah".
  • Unfulfilled Purpose Misery: "Heart With No Companion".
  • Villain Song: "First We Take Manhattan"; the viewpoint character appears to have cracked, and Cohen explicitly described it as a “terrorist song”.
  • Vocal Evolution: He started out as a middling nasally tenor. His earlier records were soprano compared against his later ones - over forty years, his voice dropped to a distinctive rumble, and it got deeper with every album. Dear Heather was positively subsonic.
  • White Collar Worker: It seems that the viewpoint character of “First We Take Manhattan”, who has snapped after being “sentenced to twenty years of boredom for trying to change the system from within”, spent that time in some kind of soul-sapping commuter job:
    But you see that line there moving through the station?
    I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those
  • A World Half Full: From "The Old Revolution":
    Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows.
  • World of Symbolism: Absolutely every song Cohen wrote operates on a symbolic level first and foremost.

I'm ready, my lord...