You may have noticed that we are raving Leonard Cohen fanatics here at Flavorpill. As such, it’s no surprise that we are quietly losing our shit about the fact that he has a new album out today — Old Ideas is his first studio album since 2004’s Dear Heather, and promises to be compulsory listening. We thought we’d celebrate by putting together our completely subjective essential Leonard Cohen discography, like we did for Tom Waits a while back — ten songs from over the years that best illustrate what we love about Montreal’s poet laureate. Choosing only ten songs from a discography that spans nearly half a century is, of course, a pretty challenging task (especially if you’re limiting yourself to one track from any given album.) So don’t just rant and rave about our choices — let us know your favorites, too.
“Suzanne” from Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
No, you basically can’t create any sort of Cohen playlist without this song. In a manner befitting Cohen’s mid-1960s shift from the printed page to the world of music, the genesis of “Suzanne” lay in a poem that he wrote about Suzanne Verdal, who was the wife of Canadian sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. Years later, Verdal told the BBC about the evenings she spent with Cohen: “I would always light a candle and serve tea and it would be quiet for several minutes, then we would speak. And I would speak about life and poetry and we’d share ideas.” Isn’t that exactly how you’d imagine a night with Leonard Cohen should be?
“Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” from Songs From a Room (1969)
Sure, the obvious choice off Songs From a Room is “Bird on a Wire,” but we’ve always been partial to the sad tale of Nancy, a song that demonstrates Cohen’s talent for writing lyrics that are simultaneously oblique and emotive — the song is full of cryptic imagery, and yet it paints a vivid portrait of a subject who was obviously a deeply troubled soul. As it turns out, Nancy was a real person, and her story was just as sad as the lyrics imply — there’s a fascinating article about her here.
“Famous Blue Raincoat” from Songs of Love and Hate (1971)
Cohen has of course written a long line of classics, but along with “Suzanne,” this is his other überclassic, the tale of a doomed love triangle that’s written as a letter from the singer to his rival. Perhaps its most remarkable aspect is how philosophical and pragmatic it manages to be: forlorn but forthright, melancholy but not bitter. Who else would write these lines to the man who effectively cuckolded him: “Thanks/ For the trouble you took from her eyes/ I thought it was there for good/ So I never tried”? And, of course, it also creates a vivid image of the singer alone in his freezing Lower East Side room at 4am, clutching a lock of his lost love’s hair as he pens a letter to the man who took her away. If we had to choose a favorite Cohen song, it’s probably this one. But that’s just us, of course.
“Field Commander Cohen” from New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)
With his image as a dapper polymath so deeply ingrained these days, it’s easy to forget that Cohen was quite the hellraiser in his time — particularly the period he spent at the Chelsea Hotel, where he got it on with everyone from Nico to Janis Joplin (the latter famously cataloged, of course, in this album’s “Chelsea Hotel #2”) and embraced the narcotic diversions of the time with gusto. “It was dangerous to accept a potato chip at a cocktail party then,” he chuckled to the Observer in 2001. “It could be sprinkled with acid. I went to somebody’s room who was having a cocktail party, had a few chips, and four days later was still trying to find my room.” Echoes of this time can be found in “Field Commander Cohen,” which casts its author as a kind of poetic subversive, a “grateful faithful woman’s favorite millionaire,” spiking the drinks at bourgeois parties and generally wreaking polite havoc. It’s also a fine example of one of Cohen’s more overlooked attributes: his sense of humor.
“The Traitor” from Recent Songs (1979)
The late ’70s seem to have been a strange time for Cohen — there was the aborted album Songs for Rebecca, which was to follow New Skin for the Old Ceremony, and then the strange, fraught Phil Spector collaboration Death of a Ladies’ Man. It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that he got things back on track — to an extent with 1985’s mixed bag Various Positions and then fully with 1988’s triumphant I’m Your Man. In the interim, however, came Recent Songs, which is a largely forgotten record these days. It’s a shame, because it has its charms. The arrangements marked a return to the acoustic sounds of Cohen’s earliest albums, and it contained a couple of gems — including this song, an extended metaphor about guilt and disloyalty that, like many of Cohen’s best lyrics, can be interpreted in any number of ways.
“If It Be Your Will” from Various Positions (1984)
Cohen’s spiritual odyssey over the years has led him from the synagogues of Montreal through a brief flirtation with Scientology to a five-year retreat at a Zen monastery. People tend to assume that the oft-abused “Hallelujah” is his most “religious” song, but it’s this song from the same album that’s probably his purest declaration of faith and trust in some sort of higher power. “From this broken hill all your praises they shall ring,” he intones solemnly, before qualifying the statement: “If it be your will to let me sing.”
“Everybody Knows” from I’m Your Man (1988)
I’m Your Man was a comeback album of sorts, a creative renaissance that found him embracing the synthesizer and a more “modern” sound. More crucially, it also marked his first collaboration with Sharon Robinson, whose talents would go on to contribute greatly to the excellent records he’s made since. “Everybody Knows” is the sole Robinson collaboration on I’m Your Man, and it’s a cracker — a world-weary deconstruction of the way humanity works that’s just as relevant today as it was in 1988: “Everybody knows the fight was fixed/ The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/ That’s how it goes/ And everybody knows.” Ain’t that the truth.
“Anthem” from The Future (1992)
Cohen once described the line “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in” from this song as “the closest thing I could describe to a credo… That idea is one of the fundamental positions behind a lot of the songs.” It also always makes us weep like a small lost child, for some reason.
“Alexandra Leaving” from Ten New Songs (2001)
Cohen has a habit of basing works on literary precedents — I’m Your Man‘s “Take This Waltz,” for instance, is based on Federico García Lorca’s poem “Little Viennese Waltz” — but rarely has the idea worked so beautifully as it did on this highlight from the generally excellent Ten New Songs. It’s a bittersweet meditation on the end of a relationship, a reminder to celebrate the good times rather than mourn the fact that things have come to an end. We’re sure we remember reading at some point that the song refers to a real-life relationship Cohen had many years ago, and had been unable to address in song until decades later, but we can’t for the life of us find the relevant interview on the Internet. Curse you, Google.
“Villanelle for Our Time” from Dear Heather (2004)
And finally, this near-spoken word piece finds the prodigal poet coming full circle, reading a villanelle by the Canadian poet F.R. Scott, whose work had appeared with Cohen’s on a record called Six Montreal Poets way back in 1957. Nearly half a century later, Cohen sets Scott’s words — again, written decades ago but still hugely relevant today — over a backdrop of delicate acoustic guitar and Anjani Thomas’s gorgeous backing vocals, reciting them with a solemnity that’s incredibly moving.