10 Great Leonard Cohen Covers - Rolling Stone
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10 Great Leonard Cohen Covers

Nina Simone, R.E.M., Lana Del Rey tackle tunes of songwriting great

Leonard Cohen, Covers

Leonard Cohen passed away at the age of 82.

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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.

Leonard Cohen, Covers

Roberta Flack, “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” (1969)

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.

Leonard Cohen, Covers

Concrete Blonde, “Everybody Knows” (1990)

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.

Leonard Cohen, Covers

Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah” (1994)

"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.

Leonard Cohen, Covers

Tori Amos, “Famous Blue Raincoat” (1995)

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.

Leonard Cohen, Covers

R.E.M., “First We Take Manhattan” (1995)

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.

Leonard Cohen, Covers

Anohni, “If It Be Your Will” (2006)

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.

Leonard Cohen, Covers

Anna Calvi, “Joan of Arc” (2009)

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.

Leonard Cohen, Covers

Lana Del Rey, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” (2013)

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.

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