Leonard Cohen wrote songs that seemed perfectly matched to the plainspoken rhythms and dry timbre of his voice. But his compositions were so simple and sturdy that other performers could adapt them to their own styles with little fuss. Here are 10 of the best renditions of Cohen's work.
Judy Collins was the first to record Cohen's song in 1966, and her austere, gorgeous version presented the title character as a shimmering mystery. Cohen's own take, released the following year as his debut single, gave voice to a man baffled by femininity and his own desire. But Nina Simone endowed Suzanne with a third dimension in 1969 – she's a fascinating character, and the singer finds her and her male adorer both amusing. The arrangement shatters the even-paced rhythms of the previous recordings, with playful piano runs and drums that beat out a jazzy counterpoint. And the way Simone's voice leaps up joyously into a falsetto that splits the final word of the line, "For you've touched her perfect body with your mind" into two syllables is about the most un-Leonard-Cohen-y way of singing you could imagine.
When Johnny Cash recorded Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" for his first American Recordings album in 1994, his countrified strum made it a proud loner's anthem while remaining true to the spirit of Cohen's footloose original. But Joe Cocker's version gives the song a complete emotional overhaul, his voice cracking and creaking with a burden of sadness. Cocker's penchant for soulful histrionics could sometimes make you overlook what a smart singer he was, but the way he stretches out the words here with careful restraint, reserving his explosions for the proper moments, is a master class in dramatic pacing.
Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm" is the sort of flowery, poetic line Robert Flack was born to sing, and Cohen's feathery melody is just as perfect for his clear, unworried voice. Flack recorded "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" for her debut album, First Take, and issued it as the B-side of her first single. The arrangement is lovely: Flack begins a cappella and is gradually joined by a quietly plucked guitar, then soft piano chords and finally a tickety-tack hi-hat that shifts the song into a higher gear.
Cohen's performance of this song figured prominently in the Christian Slater rebellious-teen flick Pump up the Volume, but the version that played over the credits had considerable charm as well. The sound is an excellent turn-of-the-Nineties modern-rock thump and shimmer, and Johnette Napolitano's moody delivery is perfect for Cohen's apocalyptic lyric.
"Hallelujah" is such a beloved, much-covered song, it's hard to remember that it was a little-known number from Cohen's critically disparaged Eighties before Jeff Buckley popularized it. This is a modification of the version Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale recorded in 1991, with deliberate fingerpicked guitar and Buckley's voice bending and snapping back into place, as flexible as a reed and just as unbreakable.
The waves of piano arpeggio utterly transform this version (from the mid-Nineties multi-artist tribute album Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen) into a Tori Amos number even before she opens her mouth. But once she does, her singing is revelatory, interacting more with the sound of the lyrics than their sense. Sometimes she's breathy and floating above, sometimes the consonants catch in her throat, and sometimes she allows words to simply evaporate.
A cut from the I'm Your Fan tribute remakes Cohen's music in the artist's own image: The first verse, draped with heavy, drawn-out guitar chords, rides an insistent hi-hat chug forward, with Michael Stipe low and brooding; the second verse builds to a martial backbeat, with a parallel vocal from Stipe rising to a higher keen. This would have fit right in on R.E.M.'s guitar-heavy 1994 album Monster.
Anohni performed this Eighties number as part of a tribute to Cohen at the Sydney Opera House in 2015, just a month before the release of her own second album, I Am a Bird Now. As captured in the concert film I'm Your Man, it was a career-making performance, showcasing Anohni's rich flutter of a voice, which is well-suited to Cohen's prayerful lyrics and replaces the gravelly resignation of the original with an almost buoyant acceptance.
Cohen was a poet before he was a songwriter, and his reputation rests on his lyrical gifts. But the excellence of his tunecraft shouldn't be overlooked. Here the British guitarist strips away all language from the original, and the instrumental that remains highlights Cohen's supple melody, whether inflecting the tone of individual notes, slightly bending their pitch for expressive effect or refracting them into chords.
Lana's Nico-gone-L.A. murmur is a stylized as ever here, doused in heavy reverb, as is the arpeggiated guitar that accompanies her, adding electronic overtones that fill in every aural space on the recording. It's a lovely performance, and a straightforward one, too – at least until her gender endows the line "You told me again, you preferred handsome men/ But for me you would make an exception" with a much different meaning than it had in Cohen's original.