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Leonard Cohen: 20 Essential Songs

The best from iconic singer-songwriter behind “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah”

Leonard Cohen: 20 Essential Songs

Leonard Cohen, pictured in 1985, passed away at the age of 82.

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Poetry, fiction and songwriting were more or less equal forms of expression to Leonard Cohen – although one paid a hell of a lot better than the others. After mastering the mystical power of melody, Cohen went on to enjoy a long, fruitful career marked by spiritual hiatuses, reinvention and a surprising late-career second act unprecedented in American entertainment.

Cohen was the sexy, late-blooming gloom-monger among a small, elite coterie of singer-songwriters who came to define the Sixties and early Seventies. His rumbling voice, Spanish-y guitar lines and deeply poetic lyrics transubstantiated the sacred into the profane and vice versa. While early songs like "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy" and "Bird on a Wire" made him a college-dorm fixture, later masterpieces like "Everybody Knows," "I'm Your Man" and "The Future" introduced him to a new generation of post-punks and fellow travelers.

And then, in his 70s, he had to do it all over again, thanks to a larcenous manager. But touring rejuvenated our hero, not to mention his reputation. Cohen's songs, both old and new, sounded deeper, richer, and more important than ever, as this sampling demonstrates.

“I’m Your Man” (1988)

"I sweated over that one. I really sweated over it," Cohen said about the overtly carnal title track of his "comeback" album. "On I'm Your Man, my voice had settled and I didn't feel ambiguous about it. I could at last deliver the songs with the authority and intensity required." Set to a cheesy drum-machine beat and sotto voce horn riffs, with more than a little suggestion of a country ballad, Cohen conversationally throws himself at the feet of a woman he's done wrong. He'd never beg for her forgiveness, of course. But if he did: "I'd crawl to you baby and I'd fall at your feet/And I'd howl at your beauty like a dog in heat…."

“Everybody Knows” (1988)

I'm Your Man's apocalyptic-comedy theme continued in this classic Cohen list song. His voice is deeper and more mordant than ever, and Jennifer Warnes adds angelic encouragement. Cohen unspools a string of received ideas – about sex, politics, the AIDS crisis, etc. – which he then goes on to neatly overturn. "It says we're not really in control of our destiny," explained co-writer Sharon Robinson. "[T]here are others running things, and we go about our daily lives with that in the background."

 The synthesizers and disco bass line contrast perfectly with the organic sound of Cohen's voice and the old-world oud soloing around it.

“The Future” (1992)

The fall of the Berlin Wall inspired The Future, especially its gloomy, thrilling title track: "Give me back the Berlin Wall/Give me Stalin and St. Paul/I've seen the future, brother: It is murder." A gospel chorus punctuates this rocker reminiscent of Dylan at his most apocalyptic. Decaying Los Angeles had infected Cohen, who's both appalled by the present and pessimistic about what's coming down the track. As he gleefully told one interviewer, "This is kindergarten stuff compared to the homicidal impulse that is developing in every breast!"

“Waiting for the Miracle” (1992)

Cohen sounds like Serge Gainsbourg at his most melancholy here. A low recurring whistle suggests the theme song from some desolate spaghetti Western. In increasingly disconsolate verses, Cohen charts the geography of the "interior catastrophe" he said informed The Future, adding, "All the songs are about that position, but I think treated vigorously, and if I may say so, cheerfully." Is that a marriage proposal to his current girlfriend Rebecca De Mornay in the penultimate verse? If so, it didn't take, because the glam couple separated not long after The Future's release. "The miracle," Cohen would say, "is to move to the other side of the miracle where you cop to the fact that you're waiting for it and that it may or may not come."

“Anthem” (1992)

"To me, 'Anthem' was the pinnacle of his deep understanding of human defeat," said Rebecca De Mornay, who earned a production credit for suggesting its gospel choir. The Future's centerpiece, a magnificent anthem to decay and rebirth, goes back a ways. Cohen began it a decade earlier as "Ring the Bells," but its Kabbalistic roots extend to the 16th century. As for its unforgettable chorus – "There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in" – Cohen claims the lines are "very old. … I've been recycling them in many songs. I must not be able to nail it."