I thought it would be kind of appropriative of me to talk about the US election so I’m not going to. Which obviously leaves me in a difficult blogging space because talking about politics seems inappropriate in one way and talking about Star Trek seems inappropriate in another.
So I’m taking a middle ground and talking about something newsy and sad but not in any way electoral. I’m going to talk about Leonard Cohen.
Let’s face it, 2016 has been a shitty, shitty year. However you feel about recent instances of democracy we’ve also lost a terrifying number of iconic figures from the middle of the 20th century. It’s almost like they were all getting old or something.
This is probably an over-generalisation but I think everybody has the celebrity death that disproportionately affects them in a way that other celebrity deaths don’t. The famous whose work was important enough and integral enough to a particular time in your life that when they go it is, and I acknowledge that this is disgustingly clichéd, genuinely as if part of you goes with them. For a lot of my friend it was Terry Pratchett. For a couple of my work colleagues it was David Bowie. For me, it’s Leonard Cohen.
This is really obvious but there are lots of different sorts of musicians. At the one end you have the one hit wonders and, at the other, you have people whose careers span significant fractions of a century. But, even amongst those performers, there are differences. Some people consistently reinvent themselves (like Bowie), others just kind of carry on being who they are and who they’ve always been (like Cher or Bob Dylan) but some really feel as if they’ve sung you their lives, like Johnny Cash or—case in point—Leonard Cohen.
And this is also really obvious but responses to music are intensely personal and because music endures in a way that other art forms often don’t the way that a person interacts with a song is a strange and weirdly unique alchemy between the singer at the time the song was written, the singer at the time the song was written about, the listener when they first heard it and the listener today. That’s an extremely complicated set of relationships to go into what is essentially a three and a half minute experience but, well, there it is.
Leonard Cohen was, and I suppose depending on how you count it technically still is, about fifty years older than me. So the songs he was writing about being my age he wrote fifty years ago. And the songs he wrote about the world I live in he wrote from the point of view of somebody who had been living in it fifty years longer. And so me listening to his music today is this peculiar experience that exists slightly outside of time. People often talk about the unique ability of smell to trigger memories and I’ve always felt it was a little bit overplayed. I mean, is it really the case that smelling something can remind you of it more strongly and more reliably than, y’know, seeing it. And surely the sensory experience that has the most profound ability to trigger that weird amalgam of memory and emotion it’s, well, music. I can’t listen to ‘You Got Me Singing’ from Popular Problems , which I bought on release in 2014, without thinking of ‘Light As The Breeze’ from The Future, which I first encountered at university in the early 2000s, but which was written in 1992. And my perception of all those songs is coloured by the awareness that they’re written by the same man who screamed into the microphone on ‘Diamonds In the Mine’, who no longer owns the copyright on ‘Suzanne’, who lost his faith, found his faith, who randomly collaborated with Philip Glass, who I saw live in London in 2008 with a friend who later died.
My original intent for this article was to do a top ten but then I remembered I hate top tens because they embody everything I think it’s wrong to value, being reductionist, hierarchal and over-simplistic. So instead this slightly melancholy article is going to conclude with a list of arbitrary length and in no particular order of some Leonard Cohen songs I thought I could say a couple of things about. I’m not going to mention anything from You Want It Darker because it’s impossible to talk about that right now without it getting all muddled up with the fact he’s, um, dead.
Diamonds In the Mine
This, frankly, is the song that puts people off Leonard Cohen. While I was at university I had a friend who nearly dumped somebody because they said Leonard Cohen sounded like a paedophile. But, to be fair to that person, on the basis of this song alone I can sort of see where they were coming from. I know most people would probably cite ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ as their archetypal early Leonard Cohen song but I’m just weirdly fond of this one. I think it’s the sheer, undirected energy of it. I’ve never known anybody so pissed off about not getting any post.
Um, obviously I know it’s a metaphor. Don’t write in.
You kind of have to mention this one. Although, honestly, this one of those songs that I actually prefer in cover. And not, in fact, because I think the covers are better than the original—the original is a great song, and the version I saw him perform in London was phenomenal—but because the song taps into something so primal and fundamental that the totality of covers becomes something that eclipses any individual version or artist.
My favourite cover is KD Lang so that’s why I’ve linked that instead of the original.
Okay, this is really embarrassing but when I was at university I had a big piece of canvas over my bed that I’d sort of covered in lines from stuff that felt important to me. Like a whole bunch of motivational posters mashed together without the cat photos. God, being twenty was humiliating in retrospect. Anyway, one of those lines was “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” So I basically had to pick this.
There’s basically nothing you can say about Anthem that hasn’t been said because it’s fucking Anthem.
Here it is.
Light As The Breeze
That’s light as the breeze, not light as a breeze. Like vampires.
I was trying to avoid doing too many from the same album but I fucking love The Future. I find this one a little bit embarrassing to talk about because it’s one of those that you listen and go “is this about sex, I’m pretty sure it’s about sex, is it weird that I think this is about sex?” I mean, it’s about Leonard Cohen things like faith and the loss of faith, and sensuality and longing, all in this really tangled up way. But I guess, and obviously I don’t know because I’m not him, for Leonard Cohen the search for physical satisfaction and spiritual connection are (were *sad face* ) kind of the same thing. See also, Hallelujah, If It Be Your Will, and about half the rest of his back catalogue.
Also Resplendent Chemise sounds like a level 23 World of Warcraft drop.
Okay, I sort of admit that I might have picked this one because I’ve watched a lot of Pointless recently (for my American readers, Pointless is a BBC quiz show in which the aim is to name things within a certain category that other people wouldn’t think of) and if I had to pick a Leonard Cohen from I’m Your Man as an answer on Pointless I’d pick Jazz Police. It’s just sort of very different from everything else on the album. I can’t really say anything profound about it except that I weirdly like it.
Also speaking of obscure BBC quiz shows, you could get a really good Only Connect (for my American readers, Only Connect is a British quiz show in which teams of contestants have to spot connections between a series of seemingly random clues) music round with extracts from this song, Karma Police by Radiohead, Dream Police by Cheap Trick and Love Police by Phil Collins (the connection being, “abstract concept police”).
I should add that I absolutely love everything on I’m Your Man, which is probably why it was so hard to pick a single track and I ended up going for the silly one.
Popular Problems is my second album of the second half of Leonard Cohen’s career. It is to Ten New Songs what The Future is to I’m Your Man. It’s ultimately a very thoughtful and political album about war ‘n’ shit but it opens with this piece of mischief. It’s another “are you talking about sex, Lenny” track. It’s sleazy as hell and and everything about it just sort of makes me smile.
Villanelle For Our Time
This is a fucking villanelle. There are basically only three good villanelles because it is a silly, silly poetic form. Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is one. This is another and I’m leaving the third spot open out of charity.
This is from Dear Heather which is the album he did after Ten New Songs and so is sort of like his difficult second album except that he wrote it after already performing for half a century. It’s a very talky, very poetry-ey album and this falls more or less in the middle of it. I think what I like about this, and about a lot of Dear Heather, is that it almost feels like it’s Cohen going through music and out the other side. I mean, his work has always basically been poetry set to music and Dear Heather was him embracing that to its fullest extent.
While I’m talking about Dear Heather, I have to give a nod to Because Of because it’s Leonard Cohen talking about what a total player he still is, or perhaps isn’t. Super great.
Literally Everything On Ten New Songs
Basically, this is my Cohen album because it’s the one he released when I was falling in love with him. He’d done basically nothing for a decade, on account of being actually really old and going through a tonne of stuff, including becoming Buddhist like everyone did in the 90s, and then he lost all of his money and needed to start performing again. Which is sort of difficult because on the one hand I’m glad his later work exists, on the other hand it’s never nice when old men lose all their cash.
I can’t even begin to explain what this album means to me … so I’m not going to because I’m far too self-conscious and British.