By the time you read this column, 77-year-old Canadian poet/musician Leonard Cohen will have only just released his 12th studio album, the drolly named Old Ideas (Columbia. UPC 886979867123), on January 31. Songs that have been leaked so far are stately and hymnlike, as befitting a man who became a Zen monk in 1996 and whose voice has aged from a nasal yelp to low intonations worthy of an Old Testament prophet. It’s been a long, strange road for an unassuming writer who picked up a guitar and put his melancholic, lovelorn, and often bleakly humorous lines into song form at the tail end of the Sixties.
Improbably, Cohen became something of a cult hero, gaining an obsessive coterie of followers‚ who wanted either to comfort him or read him their poetry‚ and a (perhaps unfair) reputation as one of the most depressing songwriters ever. But that glib assessment undercuts the magic of his songcraft: precise imagery and minimalist lyrics, coupled to heart-tugging melodies.
It’s this music‚ 11 restless albums over 40 years‚ that has snagged several generations of devoted fans. (Indeed, when I caught a Leonard Cohen show in 2009, I was sandwiched between a twentysomething girl and a fiftysomething woman, both in tears the whole time!) Cohen shows no signs of slowing down; he’s one of those incredibly rare Sixties acts whose best days may arguably be in the here and now. You can have your Bob Dylans and your Neil Youngs, Leonard Cohen is the monument for me.
Let’s take a quick tour of the highlights of his back catalog to get in the proper mood.
Songs of Leonard Cohen. Sony Legacy. 1968.
Way too many faux-sensitive singer/songwriters with ruffled hair have waxed foolish about merging poetry and the pop song, but right out of the gate the thirtysomething Cohen arrived with a suite of skeletal songs that did just that.
Songs from a Room. Sony Legacy. 1969.
Cohen decamped to Nashville for his second record, teaming up with Bob Dylan/Arcade Fire(!), producer Bob Johnson, and a cadre of session vets (including a young Charlie Daniels!) to cut another set of intimate songs. Standouts include Bird on a Wire and You Know Who I Am.
Songs of Love and Hate. Sony Legacy. 1971.
The follow-up to Room was recorded in the same studio with most of the same personnel but was a more raw and gritty collection of music. Perhaps his strongest album, it delivered with songs like Famous Blue Raincoat and Last Year’s Man and made your skin crawl during Dress Rehearsal Rag.
Death of a Ladies’ Man. SBME Special. 1977.
On paper, it seemed like a dream. Leonard Cohen, poet laureate of misery, teamed up with Phil Spector, Mr. Wall of Sound and the man behind the Everly Brothers and the Ronettes. Unfortunately, Spector was pretty damn loopy by this point, and the result is an album that takes many listens to fully digest its grandiose mystery.
Live in London. Sony. 2009.
The old man’s still got it! A 70-plus-year-old Cohen hit the road, wowing crowds all over the world with marathon sets (two hours plus, Bruce Springsteen style) and ridiculously spry performances (often literally skipping offstage), as this document of one night in London proves.
I’m Your Man. SBME Special. 1988.
At the tail end of the Eighties, Cohen casually picked up a synthesizer and found a whole new world of musical textures. It was a new beginning for him creatively and featured the classic treatise on aging and writer’s block, Tower of Song.
Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. Lions Gate. 2005.
Musicians both new (Rufus Wainwright) and old (U2; the McGarrigle sisters) line up to give Cohen’s songbook a whirl onstage, intercut with new interviews with Cohen wryly reflecting on his life, art, and Buddhist dalliance.
Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire. Tony Palmer Films. 2010.
An indispensable (and long-buried) live document from 1972 wherein a small film crew follows Cohen and band all over in a mirror-cracked version of Don’t Look Back . Whereas Bob Dylan was icy, Cohen was patient and overwhelmed with emotions, carried away by the power of music.