There are two ways you can go when you’re covering a song like Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne.” You can try to fill in the colors, adding expressive melodic flourishes that emphasize the emotion in Cohen’s lyrics — or you can take the opposite tack, leaning into the dry, sardonic delivery that’s just as key to the original 1967 performance. There are merits to both approaches. For an excellent example of the first, see the version of “Marianne” that Rufus Wainwright often sings in concert. For the second, try Courtney Barnett’s new MTV Unplugged (Live in Melbourne) album, which ends on a take on “Marianne” that’s every bit as much of a heartbreaker.
Barnett spends most of the set doing what you’d expect, rearranging highlights like “Depreston” and “Avant Gardener” with a little less guitar fuzz and a bit more chamber-music cello (very Nirvana Unplugged in New York). It’s all lovely, a nice treat for fans even if these versions are unlikely to replace their plugged-in originals in your hearts or Indie Rock Party Time! playlists. But her “So Long, Marianne,” is a keeper. It makes sense that a musician as wise and writerly as Barnett is a Cohen fan; of course she is! And her understated reading of this song proves that she really gets him.
It’s a song about mixed feelings, a conflicted goodbye to someone the singer still very much needs. There’s a ton of love, pain, regret, and lust in each word — the standard Cohen cocktail of emotions — but they’re just below the surface. So Barnett keeps them there. She’s cool and distant for most of the song, hiding the hurt with gentle sarcasm. It’s a shock each time her voice goes raw on lines like “You left when I said that I was curious/I never said that I was brave.” In those moments, you can hear her defensive composure slipping. They wouldn’t be half as powerful if she’d spent the whole song at that level of intensity. It’s a reminder that as sharply original a songwriter as Barnett is, she’s also a gifted listener to music’s history.