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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.

“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."

“A Thousand Kisses Deep” (2001)

Leonard's koans became even more profound after he spent five years in the Mt. Baldy Zen Center between The Future and 2001's Ten New Songs. His new record, according to co-writer/producer/singer Sharon Robinson, was "some kind of extension of his time at Mount Baldy. He was still very reclusive during this time." Robinson recorded the music in her garage studio and took it to Cohen, who added his vocals in his own home studio. He gave it the feel of an old folk song, and its sense of desolation and profound loneliness makes it an exceptionally intimate experience.

“Going Home” (2012)

Rejuvenated by the two-year tour he undertook in 2008 at age 73, Cohen returned to the studio to record what would become Old Ideas. Its opening track is marvelously meta, with Cohen's ego or transcendental self or somesuch describing "Leonard" as a "lazy bastard living in a suit." Although thousands of cigarettes had done a number on his voice, Cohen's self-examination offers a remarkable example of self-forgiveness on the way to the long goodbye. Cohen didn't see much future in the song when he first gave it to his producer. "Pat [Leonard] saw the lyric for 'Going Home' and said, 'This could be a really good song,' and I said, 'I don't think so.'"

“You Want it Darker” (2016)

Cohen's long goodbye concluded with a sparsely arranged 14th album produced by his son, Adam. A male cantorial chorus replaces the backing women of yore in its title track, intoning a haunting countermelody to Cohen's baritone growl. Like so much great devotional music, the words could be addressed equally to a deity, an object of desire or a fan. It's hopeful and despairing, bitter and sweet, pious and profane. "Hineni, hineni" – here I am – he declares in Hebrew between verses, "I'm ready my Lord." You want it darker? As he told The New Yorker upon its release, "I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable."