My Year of Leonard Cohen

Introduction

Leonard Cohen has died. Although I had always been aware of him, and knew he had written ‘Bird on a Wire’, ‘Hallelujah’, and ‘First We Take Manhattan’, I had never actively listened to him or sought his music out.

A Sad Beginning

That changed in April when ‘Suzanne’ was played at a funeral I attended: it had a powerful effect on me. It seemed to relate directly to the person who had died and it encapsulated the sadness in the room. I vaguely recognised the song and guessed that it was Leonard Cohen singing it. Following the funeral, I started investigating his back catalogue, particularly the first 3 studio albums. (Here is a great documentary on those early albums).

Diamonds In the Mine

It is a wonderful thing when a whole world of undiscovered beauty opens up before you and yields up its many treasures and gems. I knew that Cohen was famed for his lyrics, but I was amazed to discover how beautifully melodic his songs are and how swollen with feeling. And I knew nothing of his distinctive and brilliant guitar playing.

Those early albums provide a mix of some songs that grabbed me by the throat on first hearing (‘Suzanne’, ‘So Long Marianne’) and others that I found more difficult to like at first, but which got inside my head anyhow and slowly worked their magic. This very week I was listening to ‘Songs From a Room’ and had the wonderful experience of a couple of its songs (‘The Partisan’ and ‘Seems So Long Ago, Nancy’) ‘clicking’ for me for the first time. They have been on mental repeat all week.

The Real Thing

Cohen had an unusual voice, was not a technically impressive singer and the arrangements on those early albums is fairly sparse in places. He is not always an easy listen. Many more gifted singers have covered his songs in more lushly arranged and produced interpretations. For me, none of them match the raw emotional power of Cohen’s own versions. He had a unique voice, which carried the emotional hit of his words like no one else, and which delivered the diamond-hard melodies with precision. There is no need for vocal gymnastics or overblown instrumentation when honest, direct simplicity can yield such raw power.

I am glad to have discovered Cohen’s music, which has been a fairly constant companion for most of this year. I am sure that there are more gems to unearth and I look forward to doing so.

Thank you Leonard.

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