There's a lover in the story
But the story's still the same
There's a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
But it's written in the scriptures
And it's not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame.
- Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker”
The Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen passed away earlier this month at the age of 82, mere weeks after the release of his final studio album, You Want it Darker. Cohen was a revered musical and literary figure, whose songs and poetry were heavily influenced by spirituality (embracing Judaism and Zen Buddhism), the temporal joys and sometimes brutal vicissitudes of love, as well as his decades-long struggle with depression.
Leonard Cohen’s voice was the perfect complement to the wry humor and lugubrious longing of his compositions, but in many cases the definitive versions of his songs were recorded by others. Cohen’s work was frequently covered and reinterpreted by his contemporaries and successive generations of musicians. A few representative examples include Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, Joan Baez, Lana Del Rey, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Judy Collins, R.E.M., Beck, and Will Oldham. The list of artists who have covered Leonard Cohen becomes exponentially longer when we consider his best-known song, “Hallelujah”, popularized by Jeff Buckley. An entire book has been written about the numerous permutations of this single song: The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the unlikely ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cohen’s music has been prominently featured in a strikingly diverse array of films. Two of the foremost directors of the German New Wave, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, included Leonard Cohen tracks on their films in the 1970s; Lars Von Trier featured Cohen’s “Suzanne” in his 1996 film Breaking the Waves; and American director Robert Altman scored the entirety of McCabe and Mrs. Miller with Leonard Cohen songs. Other memorable contemporary examples include Shrek, Pump Up the Volume, Natural Born Killers, Wild, and the opening theme for the second season of the HBO series True Detective.
For those of you encountering Leonard Cohen for the first time, I would encourage you to check out his 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate. The eight songs contained on that album rank among his finest early compositions, but “Famous Blue Raincoat” is the track most likely to keep you up at night. It’s an epistolary song whose narrator obliquely recounts a love triangle with such oppressive world-weariness and dispassionate precision that the listener can’t help but feel haunted by its mystery.
If you admire Leonard Cohen’s songcraft but aren’t in love with his unique voice, I’ll simply refer you to Jeff Buckley’s heartbreakingly beautiful cover of “Hallelujah”.
Lyrics and Biographies