There was so much more to Leonard Cohen than “Hallelujah.”
The inevitable, blasphemous regurgitation of sanctity as nostalgia brought the late Montreal writer, poet and songwriter’s signature song back to Saturday Night Live last week, echoing their first use of the song as an homage to Hilary Clinton’s failed presidential run by having a Trumpified Alec Baldwin work through another cover to serve as a hopefully premature coda to his presidency.
A reading of Cohen’s complete discography reminds us that he strove to live in the space beyond bipartisan division, beyond identity politics and divisive rhetoric, so that’s just one of the reasons Observer Music compiled this long, exhaustive list, ranking each of Cohen’s albums in a futile attempt to fit a crown on one record from a man who never made a truly bad album. The other reason is that several of the albums feature “Songs” in the title, and figuring out which is which can get confusing.
In the interest of sanity, we’ve left out Cohen’s eight fantastic live albums, but know that Columbia’s official 2009 release of his 1970 Isle of Wight performance is breathtaking and magical, peak Cohen. Performing a little after four in the morning to a dirty, mud-drenched crowd after Jimi Hendrix, Cohen’s country-led band included his producer, Bob Johnston and fiddle player Charlie Daniels. Cohen “did the damndest thing you ever saw: he charmed the Beast,” recalled Kris Kristofferson. “A lone sorrowful voice did what some of the best rockers in the world had tried for three days and failed.”
While this list of Cohen’s albums could never bottle the literary genius or ascetic, old-world wisdom that permeated his oeuvre, we share it with you in the hopes that, at the very least, it offers some insight into a remarkable figure’s mercurial drive to understand himself, and a changing world, through song.
13) Tie – Ten New Songs & Dear Heather
Before releasing music, Cohen began his career as a poet, and the two albums he released after spending the ’90s at a Zen monastery in California up on Mount Baldy reminded a new generation that his words worked just as well when spoken. Cohen had long worked with musical arrangers to help shape his words, but 2001’s Ten New Songs makes this contrast particularly apparent with a co-writing credit on every song for his former backup singer Sharon Robinson, perhaps best known for writing the music to “Everybody Knows.”
While tunes like “A Thousand Kisses Deep” and “In My Secret Life” blossomed through live arrangements later on in his career, Ten New Songs’ recorded versions are heavy on the schmaltz.
2004’s Dear Heather fares only slightly better with its similarly Casiotone-heavy arrangements and long, spoken-word interludes. Opening with a musical take on Lord Byron’s “Go No More A-Roving”, the 70-year-old Cohen begins Dear Heather with gracious suggestions of finality that he would later take to their profound, mortal conclusion on his final three albums.
Both Ten New Songs and Dear Heather incorporate words from Cohen’s time up on Mount Baldy that find a simpler and more poignant home in Book of Longing, his 2006 collection of poetry from those years accompanied alongside Cohen’s sparse, simple line drawings of his late teacher, roshi Kyozan Joshy Sasaki.
12) Popular Problems
At the ripe age of 80, Cohen wanted one last word on the zeitgeist. The middle child in Cohen’s final trilogy of albums delivers universal prophecies in his grim, sardonic baritone that opens up the void of darkness with humor and redemption. Released in 2014, just two years after Old Ideas, Popular Problems finds Cohen looking outward at the world with his characteristic biblical allegories and self-effacing charm. Split evenly between gospel and keyboard-heavy blues numbers, Popular Problems channels the schmaltz of his early aughts recordings, but stands above them for its pointedly unapologetic perspectives on society at large, weaving them into personal acceptance of an imminent end.
“Samson in New Orleans,” for example, channels the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a spiritual tragedy with its gospel lilt, used to juxtapose the gorgeousness of heavenly arrangements against his cigarette-stained rasp. On “Did I Ever Love You” Cohen sings with all his gusto, leaving all his vocal chord cracks high in the mix as he sings about blossoming lemon trees and withering almond trees.
“I fled to the edge/ Of the mighty sea of sorrow/Pursued by the riders/Of a cruel and dark regime/But the waters parted/And my soul crossed over/Out of Egypt/Out of Pharaoh’s dream,” he croons on “Born in Chains,” likening the afterlife to the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.
That Cohen’s most maligned album also contains some of his best songs is a testament to the seeming paradox of the endless dualities he embodied throughout his entire career—timeless spiritual profundity juxtaposed with carnal matters of the body and flesh. Even in its title alone, 1984’s Various Positions makes his attempts to understand that paradox clear, but buries its brilliance in dated ’80s Casio keyboard accompaniments and John Lissauer’s cheesy production, sounds that Cohen wouldn’t refine to his advantage until I’m Your Man.
Having not recorded an album for five years, Cohen spent the gap working on poems that eventually became that year’s poetry collection, Book of Mercy, visiting his children in the south of France. Various Positions came together when Lissauer discovered Cohen at New York City’s Royalton Hotel, trading in his guitar for the aforementioned keyboard.
It’s a shame, because one wonders if different production choices might have elevated Various Positions’ ubiquitous standard “Hallelujah” to be celebrated through its author’s recording instead of Jeff Buckley’s or John Cale’s covers.
The nine-song set has a slew of other classic Cohen compositions, too, that would blossom in later live arrangements and echo his poetic talents to anyone who dove deep enough. Liberated from canned, synthetic accompaniment, “Dance Me to the End of Love” became a favorite set opener on Cohen’s final tours, and “The Law” channeled a Kafkaesque interpretation of morals and ethics that Cohen last evoked on New Skin For an Old Ceremony, which Lissauer also produced.
Closing out the first side, “Night Comes On” is still considered one of Cohen’s finest compositions amongst fans, as he again personifies the evening as a woman (a la “Lady Midnight”), seeking solitude and solace during The Yom Kippur War while questioning morality and familial obligation in conflict.
Beyond side two’s opener, “Hallelujah,” Cohen continues to ponder themes of morality in armed conflict on the country-infused “The Captain,” while the stunning closer “If It Be Your Will” expands on Aleister Crowley’s timeless maxim “Do what thou wilt” as Cohen and vocalist Jennifer Warnes deliver one of his most beautifully felt verses—“If it be your will/That I speak no more/And my voice be still/As it was before/I will speak no more/I will abide until/I am spoken for/If it be your will.”
10) Old Ideas
The beginning of what would become Cohen’s final trio of albums looks death in the face with frankness, humor and grace in equal measure, posing in a lawn chair like the titular dead guy in Weekend At Bernie’s.
Old Ideas begins with Cohen speaking in third person (or is it the voice of Hashem?) on “Going Home,” and his choir of angels, The Webb Sisters, sing the titular refrain. At 78, Cohen’s body is a costume, his love and lust are burdens, and “He wants to write a love song/An anthem of forgiving/ A manual for living with defeat.”
The tinny keyboard and synthesized lead instruments are present on Old Ideas, sure, but they function as intentional artifice, contrasted against that golden voice and its then-newfound, guttural husk that sees Cohen dispensing some of his most unapologetically carnal, Old Testament rabbinical vibes, singing about blood, slaughter, and that vengeance belongs to the Lord on “Amen.”
In typical Cohen fashion, “Show Me The Place” could equally be referring to an afterlife or the concealed parts of a woman’s body, a thematic duality Cohen returns to time and again. Is he a slave to a love or The Lord? Either way, he’s continuing to expound on the same well-explored themes of being an unfit lover, only now age has become the reason for his ineptitude.
“Darkness” introduces a theme that would soon become omnipresent on his swan song, You Want It Darker, while another guitar-heavy number, “Crazy to Love You,” matches the intimacy of his classic compositions in its vulnerable, unordained beauty. “Souvenir heartache,” indeed.
If Old Ideas’ title or Cohen’s comic cover pose didn’t wise you up to his meditations on the ravages of age, the angel-laden intro of “Come Healing” will take you there, likely to soundtrack new-age, holistic centers across the land for years to come. “Behold the Gates of Mercy/In arbitrary space/ And none of us deserving of the cruelty or the grace,” he sings. The song captures a man who’s built a career on vulnerability at one of his most vulnerable moments. In anyone else’s voice, it’d be saccharine.
9) The Future
Cohen’s follow-up to 1988’s I’m Your Man, The Future steps up its synth game considerably, resulting in an album that sounds fuller and more gleefully apocalyptic than anything that came prior, matching, and at times surpassing, the thematic heaviness of Songs of Love and Hate. Would-be uncomfortably frank lyrics are accompanied by thoughtful, catchy arrangements, from the title track referencing “crack and anal sex” with its memorable refrain of “When they said ‘repent’/I wondered what they meant” to talk of “Saturdays with acid” on “Closing Time.”
“Anthem” has one of Cohen’s most memorable Zen koans, an intentionally ambiguous riddle, phrase or statement designed to induce meditative thought—“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” While Cohen would dabble with spoken-word indulgences much more later down the line, The Future finds the perfect balance between statement and song.
Cohen risked profaning his own status as a true lover of women with Death of a Ladies’ Man by bringing Phil Spector on board to produce, and Spector’s “Wall of Sound” treatment adds his trademark line of female singers, horns, and orchestration at the expense of Cohen’s vocal warmth.
Written with Spector over just three weeks, 15 songs were eventually whittled down to the eight on Ladies’ Man, and some work better than others. Forgive the florid opener, “True Love Leaves No Traces” and the tacky, bumpkin kitsch of “Fingerprints” to find some really great, dark songs, borne from the mind of a a tremendous talent upon discovering the moment when the ego and image that have largely propelled his mythos evaporated.
The minor-key swing in “Iodine” is buoyed by Nino Tempo’s arrangements and Steve Douglas’ sax skronk, while Spector acolyte Ronne Blakley matches Cohen’s yearning with some tortured muse vocals of her own. “Paper Thin Hotel” conjures a voyeuristic moment akin to Henry Miller’s Parisian lodgings in Tropic of Cancer, listening to the woman he’s into making love through the walls—“A heavy burden lifted from my soul/I learned that love was out of my control.”
“Memories” evokes a big band arrangement for a sort-of revisionist history, at a high school dance had the Nazis won, with Cohen pinning an iron cross to his lapel and being rejected by the Aryan bombshell before defiantly proclaiming, “Look, you don’t know me now, but very soon you will.” And he’d never record another tune like, “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard On”, the album’s danciest, most propulsive number that’s every bit as weird as its name suggests.
7) Recent Songs
Following the negative reaction to Death of a Ladies’ Man, Cohen mastered the gypsy folk sound he’d flirted with on New Skin For an Old Ceremony with 1979’s Recent Songs, also with elements of jazz and lounge that would blossom on his ’80s recordings. Recent Songs’ violins and acoustic, nylon guitars washed away any residual bitterness left over from Ladies’ Man, opening with “The Guests” and its description of a dinner party attended to by “the open-hearted many and the broken-hearted few.”
The album’s instrumental arrangements would later be similarly replicated by the band that accompanied Cohen during his final touring years.
“The Window” remains one of the simplest, most sincere songs of Cohen’s career, ascetic and sparse as anything off of Songs From a Room. “Oh chosen love/Oh frozen love/Oh tangle of matter and ghosts/ Oh darling of angels, demons and saints/ And the whole broken-hearted hosts/Gentles this soul,” he sings, again at peace on his cloud of unknowing.
Elsewhere, Recent Songs’ abstractions bolster Cohen’s seemingly passive acceptance of solitude and even hint at joy. His cover of “The Lost Canadian (Un Canadient Errant)” hinges on a mariachi-infused arrangement, but it works. The closer, “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” meanwhile might be the closest Cohen’s come to writing a straight country song. An allegorical narrative about a cowboy searching for his horse eventually becomes about “the thrill of the chase” in the same way that Keats’ famed poem, “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” featured a hunter with his bow pulled back, ever frozen in unfulfilled conquest.
6) I’m Your Man
Generally regarded as Cohen’s ’80s masterpiece, the woozy synths and sterile, dated percussion that populates I’m Your Man work well to supplement the album’s strong vibes of self-deprecation and ruin. Opening with an opposite revisionist conquest to that of Ladies’ Man’s “Memories,” “First We Take Manhattan” seems to tease and wryly indulge old, anti-semitic conspiratory thoughts of Jewish conquest.
The classic Sharon Robison collaboration, “Everybody Knows,” looks at the disconnect between what is told to us and what we perceive to be true, channeling AIDS, racism and the fallacy of Reagan-era “trickle down economics” in one fell swoop, while the title track demonstrates that Cohen can still remain a playful wordsmith, infusing whimsy and devotion into each repetition of the song’s refrain.
Cohen’s “Take This Waltz” was based on his translation of Fredrico Garcia Lorca’s “Pequeño vals vienés,” originally part of a collection of Lorca’s poems performed by a variety of artists, in an album called Poetas en Nueva York. It was issued to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the poet’s assassination by Spanish Fascists in 1936.
Closing with “Tower of Song,” meanwhile, was yet another masterstroke of dissolving the ego, as Cohen complains that his hair is gray and he aches in the places that he used to play before proclaiming, “I was born like this/I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
There are enough great songs on I’m Your Man to forgive the misguided, near unlistenable “Jazz Police.”
Cohen’s final album amplifies the “Darkness” of 2012’s Old Ideas and portrays a man consumed by pain, ready to check out. After losing his muse Marriane Ihlen and proclaiming in an open letter to her that he’d be joining her soon, Cohen also told The New Yorker’s David Remnick that he was ready to die, later walking it back before passing on the night before the election of Donald Trump.
Produced with the help of his son Adam as he sang from a medical chair, You Want It Darker captures a master tying up loose ends and reckoning with the fact that some loose ends don’t get tied up at all. “Treaty” likens love to the end of a conflict, echoing the ceasefire in Various Positions’ “Night Comes On,” so “nobody else had to die.”
“Traveling Light” expands on his celebrated koan from “Anthem” and seeks to make sense of a Kabbalistic energy exchange as the gypsy folk of Cohen’s past lives returns in the form of bouzoukis and mandolins.
As a summation of all the sounds that have possessed the enigmatic singer throughout his long and celebrated career, You Want It Darker might have sounded like a greatest hits or sonic regurgitation in the hands of any lesser artist. With Cohen and his compatriots at the helm, however, the collection soothes and stings with the wisdom of an ordained monk, a poet, a singer and a lover who’s come to terms with his waning mortality.
Finding wide success as a singer later than most with 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, the Poet Prince of Montreal’s second record was called a “sophomore slump” in its immediate release. In reality, it’s the sound of a uniquely singular voice, a celebrated poet and novelist still reckoning with the paradox of being famous for singing about loneliness.
Songs From A Room’s production, courtesy of Bob Johnson, feels at odds with the songs’ themes and motifs, with jew’s harp, walking bass and organ often serving as the only accompaniment. “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes,” for example, features an odd synth lead that distracts from the song’s story when it should be supplementing.
But the album remains a classic for its ascetic highs, as on opening track “Bird on a Wire” with its Medieval evocations of “a beast with its horns” and artful use of the word “thee.” “Story of Isaac” and “The Old Revolution” speak richly-realized, rabbinical wisdom with old-world resonance, as Cohen’s audibly getting more comfortable addressing his Judaism on this record than on his debut.
“It Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” meanwhile captures the failed dream of the ’60s better than any of Cohen’s subsequent recordings (perhaps only tied with “Chelsea Hotel No. 2″), as he narrates a tragic tale of a woman who loved everyone but never found what she was looking for until she took her own life. “But nobody would meet her in The House of Mystery,” intones Cohen, already beginning to unpack his lifelong fascination with Kabbalistic imagery.
Cohen’s introduction of the French anti-war song “The Partisan” into a North American consciousness in 1969 must not be understated, either. The same penultimate verse he sang in French, Joan Baez would sing in Greek years later, echoing the ugliness of war and its tendency to make us all wanderers with the line “J’ai repris mon arme”—“I have retaken my weapon.”
Cohen’s most musical album reckoned with a ton of big ideas—Medieval sanctity, Middle Eastern conflict, longing, regret, apathy and war well before Pat Benatar declared “Love is a Battlefield.”
New Skin for an Old Ceremony was the first of Cohen’s records to introduce the “gypsy folk” sound that would come to dominate so much of his later career, but against the mandolins and tribal percussion is a decent amount of banjo, too, making for a thoughtful merging of cultures that the album’s themes carry through.
There seems to have been a lot on Cohen’s mind, and you can catch most of it in 1972’s Bird On a Wire documentary—Cohen being propositioned by female fans, angering fans after cutting a show short in Germany, and footage of the famous story when Cohen dosed himself with LSD midway through an Israeli show that was going horribly, only to see a spectral vision of his muse Marianne appear before him in the crowd bringing a message of peace.
On New Skin, as on his prior release Songs of Love and Hate, Cohen’s happy to cut through his own mystical powers by introducing figures of pop culture—opener “Is This What You Wanted?” explores his sacred/profane dualities by contrasting Marlon Brando with Steve McQueen and K.Y. Jelly with Vaseline, giving equal vocal weight to lines about Mr. Clean and beasts with horns.
Elsewhere, cuts like the heartbreakingly gorgeous “Chelsea Hotel #2” about an intimate, fleeting moment with Janis Joplin and the reworking of an old Hebrew prayer, “Who By Fire,” are now classics of the Cohen canon. But equally as powerful is “Field Commander Cohen,” the first in what would become many of Cohen’s revisionist, autobiographical historical fictions.
“Why Don’t You Try,” meanwhile, eschews any sinister implications of urging a woman to forget her lover with its playful woodwind lead, while “Take This Longing” stands among the most beautiful, cohesive and uncluttered love songs Cohen’s ever written—“Take this longing from my tongue/All the useless things these hands have done/Let Me see your beauty broken down/Like you would do for one you love.”
By the end of New Skin’s wildly diverse song cycle, we get a standard of the Christian canon, reclaimed and reimagined by Cohen in “Leaving Green Sleeves,” with an intentionally ostentatious level of daring and gall.
Cohen’s 1971 masterwork is presented plainly, its front and back cover art perfectly capturing the album’s dualities—the front features Cohen’s disembodied head, smiling like a simpleton or a madman, while the back features a poem of Cohen’s that appears nowhere on the album, “They locked up a man/Who wanted to rule the world/The fools/They locked up the wrong man.”
Cohen’s longstanding depression has been well-documented, and some scholars have suggested he was also Bipolar. Either way, Songs of Love and Hate remains a prescient document of the anger and greed that were possessing not just Cohen, but a whole culture as it went into the ’70s without so much as a eulogy for the free love generation.
This album is Cohen’s long-form opus—save for “Diamonds in the Mine,” no track is shorter than five minutes, and the dense song cycle only adds to its emotional intensity, standing among the most intense works of a man who was known for making emotionally intense works. The love is sad in both physical and spiritual forms, while the hate is angry, acerbic and filled with bile.
On opener “Avalanche,” Cohen describes himself a hunchback who has moved beyond pain to somewhere darker—“You who wish to conquer pain, you must learn to serve me well.” It’s no wonder Nick Cave’s first solo album began with a cover of “Avalanche,” too—generations of gothic-leaning loners have turned to Songs of Love and Hate as a prototypical, foundational gospel of brooding emptiness, whether Cohen’s conquering pain or wearing his beloved’s flesh while enunciating the “sh” for maximum squeamishness.
The gorgeous “Last Year’s Man,” meanwhile, can be seen as a comment on fleeting notoriety, with the “jews harp” of mention may be alluding to the instruction on his prior record, Songs From a Room, and its lukewarm reception. We meet Joan of Arc in this song, too, not just the patron saint of Cohen’s Montreal, but here a lady playing with her soldiers in the dark. Cohen’s claiming to abandon his post as a defender of the saint—”And though I wear a uniform, I was not born to fight/ all these wounded boys you lie beside/Good night, my friends, goodnight.”
When he stumbles across an arranged wedding of old families later on in the tune, Cohen’s distancing himself from any conspiratory stereotypes or secret cabals ascribed to the Jews. Even among the minority Jewish faith, he’s an outcast, an outsider to the old families.
“Dress Rehearsal Rag” and “Diamonds in the Mine” are a one-two punch of demonic delivery and sordid imagery (a shady Santa Claus, an elephant graveyard, razorblades and veins like highways, Charlie Manson training women to kill). They then boomerang back to the gorgeous, epic “Love Calls You By Your Name,” which sits with the duality by implying it’s the in-between spaces (“Between the birthmark and the stain/Between the ocean and your open vein/Between the snowman and the rain/Once again”) where love lives. As the album’s title suggests, our singer doesn’t know how to live with the in-between, and as such, does not know love.
“Famous Blue Raincoat,” meanwhile, might best capture the loneliness and isolation of winter in New York lived alone, as Cohen describes hearing music on Clinton Street while he writes to a woman seeking to understand her transience and a love triangle he’s gotten himself into. When he speaks of “going clear,” he seems to have lost to her to Scientology. Either way, while he’s staying in one place, she’s everywhere—”I hear that you’re building your little house/Deep in the desert/You’re living for nothing now/ I hope you’re keeping some kind of record.” Sung as an open letter, he even signs it at the end.
“Sing Another Song, Boys,” recorded live during Cohen’s aforementioned stunning Isle of Wight set in 1970, further suggests Cohen’s belief that young Jewish women ought to free themselves from the stereotypes and old-world behavior isolating his people from the rest of the world. He describes a money lender’s lovely little daughter, who is “eaten with desire.”
“She spies him through the glasses/ Through the pawn shops of her wicked father/She hails him through a microphone that some poor singer, just like me, had to leave her/She tempts him with a clarinet/She waves a Nazi dagger.” Sex could cleanse her in those moments, a life preserver of modernity for a young woman he sees on the verge of falling into old, ancient patterns of cultural isolation.
Of the album’s brilliant closer, “Joan of Arc,” we can recall a 1988 interview with Cohen, and his response when asked if he ever fell in love. “Oh, I fall in love all the time,” he said. “I remember walking with Nico and I said, ‘Do you think Joan of Arc fell in love?’ and she said, ‘All the time, Leonard. All the time’. I feel my heart going out 100 times a day.”
For its 375th anniversary last year, Montreal debuted Cité Mémoire, a cycle of video projections across buildings around Old Montreal that told stories of the city’s luminaries. Past the souvenir shops selling stuffed moose dolls and maple candy, at the very edge of the Old Port on the St. Laurent River, a spectral woman spanned the entire height of the old clock tower. Narration identified her as the “Suzanne” who Leonard Cohen sings about on this, his first album, projected onto the edifice for sailors in the night.
Cohen’s old port has changed from what was described in that first song on Songs of Leonard Cohen. There was no IMAX then, no Cirque du Soleil. Café Helios, where Cohen and Suzanne went for tea and oranges, closed years ago. And the spiritually profound relationship that Cohen describes sharing with Suzanne Verdal, wife of the famed Quebecois artist Armand Vaillancourt, now seems romantically idealistic, a scene that no center of such tourism could facilitate.
Cohen called “Suzanne” journalism, and with its rich scenes, landmark identification of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel (on top of which his beloved Lady of the Harbour statue looked out over the water) and the aforementioned clock tower, a strong, reported voice roots the song’s musings on Jesus and beauty in tangible imagery. Though Cohen’s neighborhood of Westmount was much further away, it was in Old Montreal, with Suzanne, where Cohen found his creative indulgences nurtured.
Cohen was already an established literary figure when Songs was released in 1967—his second book of poetry, The Spice-Box of Earth, cemented that status in 1961, while his radically erotic, harrowingly provocative second novel Beautiful Losers was published a year prior in 1966—establishing him not as a musician who turned to poetry, but a poet who turned to music. By the release of Songs in ’67, he had two novels and four collections of poetry to his name.
This distinction elevates Songs to remain pristinely felt and flawlessly preserved, a document of one man immersing himself in romance and faith, while questioning both. Cohen’s said that “Master Song,” which describes of a man infatuated with a woman who is, in turn subservient to her master, describes a trinity. Whether the trinity is sacred or profane, he said, was a matter of debate amongst scholars.
The stunning “Stranger Song” builds on this theme of transience using the metaphor of gambling and cards and features what might be Cohen’s most impressive guitar work on the record. He once revealed that the man who taught him flamenco guitar later committed suicide. Whether this is fact or fiction remains unclear.
The breathtaking “Sisters of Mercy” features Cohen’s first reference to himself as a soldier, an analogy he would deepen throughout his career. He’d claimed that “Sisters of Mercy,” for which the British goth band was named, was the only song he wrote in one sitting. It telegraphs the themes of transience that resonate throughout the record, the wandering Jew embracing his status as a flaneur.
“I was in Edmonton, which is one of our largest northern cities, and there was a snowstorm and I found myself in a vestibule with two young hitch-hiking women who didn’t have a place to stay,” he once remembered. “I invited them back to my little hotel room and there was a big double bed and they went to sleep in it immediately. They were exhausted by the storm and cold. And I sat in this stuffed chair inside the window beside the Saskatchewan River. And while they were sleeping I wrote the lyrics. And that never happened to me before. And I think it must be wonderful to be that kind of writer. It must be wonderful.”
“So Long, Marianne” introduced the world to Cohen’s muse, who he had lived in Greece with in the ’60s. “I began this on Aylmer Street in Montreal and finished it a year or so later at the Chelsea Hotel in New York,” he once said. “I didn’t think I was saying goodbye but I guess I was. She gave me many songs, and she has given songs to others too.” She passed shortly before Cohen last year, prompting a heartbreak he wrote in an open letter to her that foreshadowed his own passing.
Songs remains Cohen’s defining work not just because of its timelessness or bohemian romanticism, but because it functions as a collection of feelings and memories that require no external interpretation or reading to bring a listener pause. It’s an arrestingly beautiful document of a time and place that still feels timeless and placeless, no matter when or where it’s heard. But moreover, it’s a reminder of the tremendous craft and care that Cohen brought to the words they wrote, whether tawdry reminiscence or holy invocation.