It has been a tough year for music fans. We lost David Bowie and Prince, two musical icons who unquestionably justified the use of the term “genius” in their obituaries. Now Leonard Cohen, whose death at the age of 82 was announced on Thursday, can be added to the list.
As recently as last month, the Canadian artist, poet, novelist and singer-songwriter was garnering rave reviews for his 14th studio album, You Want It Darker.
It is laden with references to religion and mortality (“I’m leaving the table/I’m out of the game”), which makes it tempting to interpret it as a farewell. But while the album is indeed a fitting finale for a man whose creativity stood the test of time better than almost any other popular songwriter in history, it would have been just as easy to apply that interpretation to much of his early work, too.
Self-reflection is a major theme in his archive – along with death, faith, love and the art of songwriting itself – and his willingness to assess his character and behaviour with unflinching honesty and a sharp wit helped set him apart.
You Want It Darker showed Cohen was still expanding and exploring his sound – lush, sweeping orchestral arrangements sit alongside stripped-back, classically influenced pieces. Throughout his near-50-year career, Cohen consistently delivered great songs – a feat that few, if any, of his contemporaries managed. Even his ventures into 1980s synth-pop, featuring the cheesiest of cheesy instrumentation, produced acclaimed tracks such as the lust-laden seduction call I’m Your Man.
What never changed, whatever the genre, was that voice: sitting somewhere between the popular lounge crooners of the 1950s and the folk singers of the 1960s, Cohen’s tender, mournful, resonant baritone remains unique, but clearly influenced other literary singer-songwriters, including Tom Waits and Nick Cave.
Like that of one of his greatest admirers, Bob Dylan, Cohen’s unconventional vocal style wasn’t for everyone, which might be one reason why his singles rarely reached the charts.
But Cohen had an exceptional, underrated talent for writing memorable melodies – think of the soaring, heartlifting first line of the chorus of So Long Marianne, or “the minor fall and the major lift” of the haunting hymn Hallelujah. That gift helps explain the multitude of artists who have covered his work: REM, Elton John, Pixies, Bono, Nina Simone, Willie Nelson and dozens more, including Jeff Buckley, whose astonishing cover of Hallelujah sparked a second life for a song that went virtually unnoticed on its original release in 1984.
The lack of recognition for Cohen’s melodies might also be a by-product of the excellence of his lyrics. He is arguably Dylan’s closest challenger in terms of literary songwriting prowess. Cohen’s early years as a poet and novelist shone through in his songs.
He managed to avoid the vague, clichéd emotional vocabulary of pop music while remaining concise and unpretentious. He was often funny, too. Take the self-deprecating lines in Chelsea Hotel #2, his revealing account of his brief relationship with singer Janis Joplin, for example: “You told me again you preferred handsome men/But for me you would make an exception”.
Cohen never slipped into generic shorthand. He reflected and respected the full mess of life, love and lust, happy to mix the divine and the all-too-human, the soul and the flesh: “I need to see you naked/In your body and your thought” he sang on 1988’s Ain’t No Cure For Love.
While Cohen made songwriting seem easy, he worked incredibly hard at it. Hallelujah reportedly went through,80 drafts. Some of his songs, he said, took decades to finish.
Cohen’s detractors would often dismiss his work as “depressing” – “music to slit your wrists to” was a common summation. But while songs such as Everybody Knows – (“Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/That’s how it goes”) are certainly heavy with pessimism, Cohen’s depictions of our capacity to deal with damage and loss are a major part of what make him so valuable as an artist.
In singing of sorrow, he brought solace and healing. Many of his greatest songs – So Long Marianne, Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, Bird On A Wire – deal with the endings of relationships, but also pay tribute to the love that had gone before.
He recognised and celebrated imperfection, as one of his most famous lines, from 1992’s Anthem, explains: “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”
Folk singer Judy Collins – one of the earliest and most fervent advocates of Cohen’s genius – once summarised her friend’s work as “songs for the spirit when our spirits were strained to the breaking point”. It’s a perfect description of why Cohen’s work remains valid and vital today, and of why his loss will be so deeply felt around the world.