Leonard Cohen, now in his eighth decade and still writing and recording, has amassed a body of work that can stand beside any songwriter in the English language. Bob Dylan considers him a peer and rightly so. He’s been given every award and title that official bodies have to offer and his triumphant world tour in 2012-13 reinforced his standing as a titan of songwriting. His songs have been endlessly covered, some of them to the point of cliché, but there’s a good reason for that: Cohen has contributed to the canon, he’s expanded the songbook, he’s written the type of songs that people just know without being quite sure how they know them.
From the mind-boggling highs of his first three albums to the detour into the Wall of Sound to a reinvention in the 1980s and a return from the mountain late in life, here’s a look through the incredible career of Leonard Cohen with the 20 greatest songs he’s ever written.
20. “The Future”
Cohen recorded one album in the ‘90s, but he only needed one because throughout the record he makes only giant statements, and damn if they don’t hit the mark. The record opens with his vision of The Future and we can confidently say in 2016 that, yep, he nailed it: “I’ve seen the future baby, and it is murder.” He also foresaw the demagogic parody of religion that bombards us on all sides, from all screens, when he sang, “When they said repent, I wonder what they meant?” This song is often noted for one bizarre line that really pops out of the song—“Give me crack and anal sex”—but it’s actually the line immediately after that makes a deeper cut: “Take the only tree that’s left and shove it up the hole in your culture.” What didn’t Cohen see coming?
19. “I’m Your Man”
Cohen’s mid-career, synth-laden comeback was punctuated by a few particularly strong songs and this one in particular comes off as a return to form. Cohen has a single phrase—the song’s title—which recurs at the end of each stanza but never means quite the same thing each of the times it’s repeated. Do you want a lover? A boxer? An actor? A baby? A dog? A doctor? He’s your man.
18. “Who By Fire”
Cohen’s lyricism and his voice are so prominent and noteworthy that they sometimes obscure the fact that he’s also highly skilled at writing beautiful melodies and hooks. “Who By Fire” has one of his best melodies and it’s enhanced, on the album version from New Skin for the Old Ceremony, by an arrangement that emphasizes the spare and strong base line. A loss of a sense of self is a recurring theme in Cohen’s work and this song captures that theme in one remarkable and unforgettable line: “Who shall I say is calling?”
17. “Story of Isaac”
Bob Dylan’s take on this same Biblical story on Highway 61 Revisited provides an interesting counterpoint to Cohen’s powerful “Story of Isaac” on Songs from a Room. Dylan presents the story as the framing verse of a far-flung series of murder and manipulation narratives that takes on an air of slapstick comedy thanks to Dylan’s bleating delivery (“God say ‘No!’ Abe say ‘What?’). Cohen, on the other hand, similarly uses the myth as a framing device but his application of the theme of filicide leads to an explicit rebuke to the way the youth of the sixties were being treated by their elders, especially those who would draft them for Vietnam: “You who build these altars now to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore.” In that way, the more apt parallel to Dylan might be “Masters of War.”
The opening track on Songs of Love and Hate certainly transmits the feeling of hate, but where is that hate being directed? Is it coming from “this hunchback at which you stare” or is it being directed toward him? The perspective seems to shift throughout the tune as Cohen picks himself into a dizzying spiral on his classical guitar. The song contains one of the most cryptic, yet visual, lyrics from any song of this period when he insists the he, the hunchback, is not on a pedestal but is the pedestal “for the hump at which you stare.” The song ushers us into Cohen’s darkest and most visionary record with this singular image of elevating the grotesque.
15. “Famous Blue Raincoat”
Cohen, ever the literary songwriter, borrows a technique that stretches back all the way to the invention of the English-language novel for this amazing song that, like a few of his greatest tunes, centers on a love triangle. The epistolary framing of the song is, indeed, novel when heard in song form and especially so when we discover that his aim in composing this letter to his wife’s lesbian lover is not so much to chide her or to question her but in fact to thank her “for the trouble you took from her [his wife’s] eyes, I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.” The lasting visual of the lover’s “famous blue raincoat, torn at the shoulder” is the type of crushing memory that shows Cohen’s profound understanding of the workings of the mind.
Of all the massive epics on The Future, this one rings out the loudest because amid all the apocalyptic imagery that Cohen has forced us to see on the record. The chorus of “Anthem” gives us a spiritual reasoning for why our world is breaking around us and it’s one of the most iconic lines of a career packed with them: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Go straight to your neighborhood tattoo parlor.
13. “First We Take Manhattan”
This track is thrilling because it opens I’m Your Man in a mode in which we’ve never heard Cohen before, as a kind of cosmopolitan thrill-seeker and provocateur. There’s an air of espionage in the tune somehow (reinforced later in the record by the outlandish “Jazz Police”) and Cohen’s booming baritone makes the listener feel like a conspirator. What’s the conspiracy, exactly? If you believe the speaker in the chorus, the goal is no less than world domination. We’re with you Leonard, let’s do this.
12. “Bird on a Wire”
So many of Cohen’s songs thrive because of their monumental size or lyrical density, but this oft-covered classic is just the opposite; a few simple lines, delivered humbly, both please the ear and engage the mind.
11. “Love Calls You By Your Name”
Cohen was a published poet before he ever became famous as a songwriter and his mastery of a diverse set of poetic forms is an unmistakable part of his lyrical prowess as a songwriter. Some songs, in particular, lean on his background in poetry and this song more than most. Each verse puts the listener “here, right here” between two seemingly inseparable images (“between the tunnel and the train, between the victim and his stain”), where “love calls you by your name.” The verses are occasionally paradoxical, yet all totally free of cliché, and the result is like a zen mental exercise of the type of Cohen famously retreated into later in life. Carefully constrained by rhyme and meter, Cohen brings out some of the most profound lines of his career.