For more than six decades, Leonard Cohen wrote songs, but not just any songs. Cohen made soul-shattering music, crafting masterpiece after masterpiece of lyric and sound.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
His songs were explorations of the heart, the soul, and, at times, the loins. They were beautiful and intimate works that touched on love and loss, sex and strife, connection and disconnection. He made music to make us feel, so here are 10 feel-something tunes from Cohen.
10. “Who by Fire”
And who by fire, who by water / Who in the sunshine, who in the night time, Cohen opens his classic “Who by Fire.”
From his 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, “Who by Fire” is a darkly tinted, deeply haunting tune. The desolate sound is a trademark of the artist’s repertoire, but this song is a standout among the rest.
9. “The Partisan”
Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing / Through the graves the wind is blowing / Freedom soon will come / Then we’ll come from the shadows, plays “The Partisan.”
For his 1969 album Songs from a Room, Cohen recorded this anti-fascist anthem translated from the original 1943 composition by songwriter Anna Marly and French Resistance leader Emmanuel d’Astier de La Vigerie. The tune sounds weary and war-bitten, steeped in sorrow and exhaustion.
8. “I’m Your Man”
If you want a partner, take my hand, or / If you want to strike me down in anger / Here I stand / I’m your man, opens Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.”
From his 1988 album of the same name, “I’m Your Man” was a tune that took him a while to write. “I sweated over that one,” Cohen is quoted in Paul Zollo’s book Songwriters on Songwriting. “I really sweated over it. I can show you the notebook for that. It started off as a song called ‘I Cried Enough for You.’ It was related to a version of ‘Waiting for a Miracle’ that I recorded. The rhyme scheme was developed by toeing the line with that musical version that I put down. But it didn’t work.”
7. “Chelsea Hotel #2”
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel / You were famous, your heart was a legend / You told me again you preferred handsome men / But for me you would make an exception, plays the artist’s 1974 classic “Chelsea Hotel #2.”
Featured on New Skin for the Old Ceremony, the song is about a certain singer that he revealed long after its release. Cohen later admitted the song was, in fact, about Janis Joplin.
6. “Dance Me to the End of Love”
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin / Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in / Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove / Dance me to the end of love, Cohen closes out the seductive-sounding “Dance Me to the End of Love.”
From his 1984 album Various Positions, “Dance Me to the End of Love” plays like a seemingly obvious love song. However, Cohen revealed in a radio interview that the song is actually about the Holocaust. He explained that “in the death camps, beside the crematoria … a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on, those were the people whose fate was this horror also. And they would be playing classical music while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt.”
5. “Famous Blue Raincoat”
It’s four in the morning, the end of December / I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better / New York is cold, but I like where I’m living / There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening, plays “Famous Blue Raincoat” from the 1971 album, Songs of Love and Hate.
“Famous Blue Raincoat” tells a story, one of mystery that Cohen himself is not exactly sure of. “It was a song I’ve never been satisfied with,” he explained in a BBC Radio interview. “It’s not that I’ve resisted an impressionistic approach to songwriting, but I’ve never felt that this one, that I really nailed the lyric. I’m ready to concede something to the mystery, but secretly I’ve always felt that there was something about the song that was unclear.”
4. “So Long, Marianne”
Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began / To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again, goes the chorus of one of the artist’s signature works.
From his 1967 debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen, “So Long, Marianne” is a farewell to a woman he loved. Her name was Marianne and he penned the flittering and forlorn folk tune after their separation.
3. “You Want It Darker”
Magnified, sanctified / Be thy holy name / Vilified, crucified / In the human frame / A million candles burning / For the help that never came / You want it darker, sings Cohen in “You Want It Darker.”
The title track from his 14th studio album, “You Want It Darker” is an eerie tune, textured by brooding synths and Cohen’s rumbling voice. I’m ready, my Lord, he ruggedly croons the telling line. The album was released 17 days before his death in 2016.
And you want to travel with her / And you want to travel blind / And you know that she will trust you / For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind, plays Cohen’s early hit “Suzanne.”
Another track from his 1967 release Songs of Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne” is also about a woman. Her name was Suzanne Verdal, the former wife of a Québécois artist, with whom Cohen had an affair. “Suzanne had a room on a waterfront sheet in the port of Montreal,” he explained of the song. “Everything happened just as it was put down. She was the wife of a man I knew. Her hospitality was immaculate.”
She tied you to a kitchen chair / She broke your throne and she cut your hair / And from your lips she drew the “Hallelujah,” Cohen sings in the spellbinding “Hallelujah.”
“Hallelujah” is the song most associated with Cohen and for good reason. It’s a legendary work, a dreamy parable composed of heavenly poetry. Featured on the album Various Positions, the song did not come with the ease with which the artist sang it. Cohen claimed to have written around 150 drafts of the song. While writing it, “Hallelujah” reportedly reduced the artist to sitting on a hotel room floor in his underwear and banging his head on the floor.
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics