Follow TV Tropes


Music / Leonard Cohen

Go To
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 CC (September 21, 1934 - November 7, 2016) was a Canadian poet and singer-songwriter. He was 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 to hold true for the rest of his career. 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 of his time. 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 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 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • Cool Old Guy: Among other things, he skipped 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."
    • 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"
  • 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
  • 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: I'm Your Man has elements of synth-pop with his normal folk-rock.
  • Nice Hat: As the page image shows, he could sure rock a charcoal fedora.
    "It was the hat, after all."
  • 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...
  • 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 Break-Up Song.
  • 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...
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • Title-Only Chorus: "Hallelujah".
  • 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...

How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: