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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.

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“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."

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