Ask anyone who the modern touchstone for lyric writing is and, more often than not, you’ll hear Bob Dylan. Many regard him to be the end-all, be-all of songwriting, and unabashed “greatest of all time” declarations seem to rain down wherever he pops up. There is another man, though, who doesn’t simply get swept under history’s rug with the patronizing “Dylan-esque” comparison. Leonard Cohen, seven years Dylan’s senior, is just as talented and deserves equal footing with the Minnesotan folk bard—as different as their writing styles and career trajectories are. Yesterday Cohen turned 82 years old, and a new original album (Dylan’s last two releases, in comparison, have been Frank Sinatra cover records), is forthcoming, continuing what has already been a monumental career.
Novelist. Poet. And, above all, songwriter. Outside of religious circles, he was the first to proclaim “Hallelujah.” Through all the minor falls and major lifts, this is Leonard Cohen, the baffled king of songwriting.
Cohen, a Canadian, is in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, the American Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and he’s been appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor. So, while he may be less recognizable than Dylan, he’s no less decorated—despite the relatively late start to his music career.
Dylan achieved acclaim early in his life, releasing The Times They Are a-Changin’ (already his third record) when he was just 22. Cohen didn’t release his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, until 1967, when he was already 33 years old. After becoming financially frustrated with his writing career, Cohen moved to New York City and began making music, becoming a fringe figure in Andy Warhol’s “Factory” crew. Warhol posited that Nico was especially influential in the early stages of Cohen’s songwriting.
The lyricist would go on to release six albums in the ’60s and ’70s, an output bolstered by his 1971 masterpiece, Songs of Love and Hate, a nonpareil effort of the folk music canon. The album is exemplary of Cohen’s gifts. Cohen can make magic with nothing but an unexceptional voice and an acoustic guitar, pairing artful phrases with the busy plucking that accompanies most of his songs. Sparse and unassuming, it is magical. The perfect vehicle to highlight his unique interpretation of life.
Cohen’s most enduring track, “Hallelujah,” wouldn’t arrive until his 1984 LP, Various Positions. In an episode of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell‘s podcast, the author examines two dialectical types of genius, polarizing the songwriting styles of Dylan and Cohen for one of his case studies. Dylan could famously whip up a silver-tongued ditty in 15 minutes. On the other side of the fence, Cohen might spend years on any given track, and of all of them,”Hallelujah” proved to be his Everest. Gladwell discovers in the episode that Cohen wrote upwards of 80 verses in pursuit of that summit, a climb that continued beyond the song’s 1984 release.
Cohen’s piece, which was obviously pared down to far fewer than 80 verses when it was finally recorded, received little attention until 1991, when the Velvet Underground‘s John Cale covered it for a 1991 Leonard Cohen tribute album. For his rendition, Cale plumbed the mountain of lyrics Cohen had written, cherry-picking some of the “cheeky” verses that Cohen had, until then, only revealed in live performances. In 1994, Jeff Buckley heard Cale’s version and was inspired to cover his cover, ultimately resulting in what is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever recorded, a piece of art whose effects were potentiated by Buckley’s mysterious death less than three years later.
Today, “Hallelujah” has been covered by more than 300 artists, which makes it a bonafide folk standard. Pieces like “Shady Grove” and “John Henry,” passed from generation to generation via oral transmission, exist unattributed, seemingly birthed by immaculate conception. These songs’ anonymity gave rise to the term ‘folk’. They were music of the ‘folk’, plain and simple, because no one remembered where they had actually come from. Like these folk songs, “Hallelujah” has a natural mutability, and an empyrean quality that feels as though it were drawn from some divine reservoir. The difference is that we know who wrote this one. We remember this particular reservoir, and as the piece is further enmeshed into the fabric of humanity’s collective musical consciousness, we’ll always be able to trace it back to Mr. Cohen.
The ’90s and aughts were filled with more albums, poems, and books, as well as a five-year stay at a Buddhist monastery, where Cohen was eventually ordained as a monk. In 2011, he received the prestigious Princess of Asturia Award for literature (Dylan, in 2007, received the same award for “the arts”), cementing his reputation as a multifaceted wordsmith. And all the while he continued to make music. His upcoming album, You Want It Darker, will be his third in six years, marking a creative outburst that seems to belie Cohen’s reserved fettle.
In July, his first long-time partner, Marianne C. Stang Jensen Ihlen, died of leukemia. The two of them dated throughout much of the ’60s, and when she passed, Cohen penned a portentous goodbye:
“Well, Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”
Considering the context, it’s hard not to envisage Bowie and his final album, Blackstar, which, after much hype, arrived just in time to usher Starman to his death. Cohen has shared tidbits to hint at the tone of You Want It Darker (unsurprisingly, it’s dark as hell) and a snippet of the title track appeared on Peaky Blinders. In it, he sings: “If you are the dealer / Let me out of the game / If you are the healer / I’m broken and lame.” Later, The New Yorker published an introspective new poem titled “Steer Your Way.” Like the lyrics on Bowie’s final release, Cohen seems to be confronting his—perhaps imminent—death. It’s sad, and powerful, and, like most everything else he’s done, genius.
In 2014, Cohen’s son, Adam, described his father as being “on the very upper floors of the tower of song.” Whether or not this is his final album (hopefully it’s not), it’s safe to say that Cohen has long been on the upper floors. But perhaps, at long last, he’s reached a summit, finally mounting the Everest he sought while toiling through “Hallelujah.” Alas, Leonard Cohen is still here, baffling us with his brilliance.
Image: Rama via Wikimedia Commons