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.
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?
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This song is poignant as a longing, even desperate, appeal to his real-life lover Marianne Jensen. But, like much of Cohen’s work, it’s so much more than autobiography because of a soaring refrain that gains meanings with each of its many repetitions. The 6/8 time signature and the renaissance feel of the instrumentation give the song the tone of a dirge but Cohen’s vocal performance—exploding into each refrain with a tangible sense of awe—is the essence of rock and roll. And if you haven’t yet read his farewell note to her, grab some tissues and do so here.
Cohen has disavowed the material from his Phil Spector-produced 1976 album Death of a Ladies’ Man. He has called it “grotesque” and tunes from the record never seem to appear on live albums, retrospectives or greatest hits collections. But there is one unbelievably great track on this album and, like it or not, Spector’s over-the-top production is a big reason for its greatness. The “magic changes” chords that recall ‘50s jukebox and Cohen’s increasingly ecstatic builds from verse into chorus (like his early career classic “So Long, Marianne”) result in a truly sublime moment on an otherwise out-of-sync record. Was this one of the sessions where Spector pulled out a gun? Because Cohen is singing like his life depends on it.
The final song on I’m Your Man ends the record on precisely the opposite note from how the album begins (“First We Take Manhattan”). “Tower of Song” is built around a preprogrammed keyboard beat and other than a lovely little piano solo mid-song and female backup singers contributing dee-do-dum-dums in the background the song sticks to a basement-recording simplicity. The effect, though, somehow enhances the total lyrical mastery of the verses in which Cohen pokes fun at himself for aging —“I ache in the places where I used to play”—in the lonely, solitary confines of the “Tower of Song” where he’s so isolated that not even Hank Williams will talk to him. Loneliness is a small price to pay for genius.
This song is one of those minor miracles that populate so much of Cohen’s catalog. It has the feel of something written in secret, quickly and quietly. You can, in fact, imagine him writing it in a room maybe like the one in the Chelsea Hotel where he famously made love with—and was given a legendary backhanded compliment by—Janis Joplin, to whom the song is addressed. His phrasing on this tune is particularly pristine: try not to choke up when he pleads (and recedes), “I need you, I don’t need you.” But the truly great and iconic feature of this song is that, for all the emotion and memory that he applies to its performance and composition, he ends on a profoundly ruthless statement that hangs, dangerously, in the air: “I don’t think of you that often.”
Songs of Love and Hate is one of Cohen’s most sparingly arranged records, which makes this monster track (already notable for his uncharacteristically maniacal vocal performance) stand out from the rest. The track has a demented reggae feel that adds a sarcastic note to an already bleak and merciless chorus: “There are no letters in the mailbox.” And yet, this is the least of the loneliness he chronicles. With each verse Cohen sounds more and more unhinged until by the end he is literally vamping growls. Meanwhile the upbeat up-stroke rhythms and sincere backing singers proceed as if nothing is wrong. That contrast makes for one of Cohen’s most disturbing recorded moments.
The patterned lyrical imagery of this song recalls Virginia Woolf’s novels. Like Woolf, Cohen finds a way to let a few recurring words become the plot markers of the song as they are traded and modified throughout the course of the story. The imagery conveys a “dealer” trading lovers like cards in a game of poker who comes across a new partner who considers offering him “shelter.” But which of them is the “stranger?” The gorgeous flow of the lyrics (and the signature flamenco-tinged guitar-playing) cause a disorienting identity reversal that is poetically enhanced by the mirror effect of the lyrics: the first and last verses are the same but are spoken from opposite perspectives. What David Lynch, for instance, has shown us visually in his films; Cohen has the capacity to show us mentally in his words.
This twisted masterpiece is Cohen’s most underrated song by far. He famously said of it: “I didn’t write that song, I suffered it.” The suffering comes through to the listener as a harrowing nightmare while also being one of Cohen’s greatest moments of comic grotesquery. As the self-mocking narrator stares himself down in the mirror, daring himself to commit suicide, he tells himself, “cover your face in shaving cream, there now you’re Santa Claus.” Honestly, the bitterness and bile in his voice when he calls himself Santa Claus could ruin Christmas. But he can’t quite talk himself into it and we are treated, brilliantly, to a cinematic moment in which “the camera pans” and we see for the first time not the reflection in the mirror but the man in front of it: “dress rehearsal rag.”
This is the greatest narrative in Cohen’s entire catalog. In fact, it’s one of the greatest narrative songs in the English language. How many tunes can you think of that have enough character development and plot to be capable of pulling off a twist ending in a pop song? But that’s what Cohen achieves on the second song of his debut album. The track weaves a compelling tale from the perspective of a “slave” in a sadomasochistic relationship who is tortured by having to hear about his “master’s” devotion to a new lover. Intriguingly, the speaker’s master is the M of his new S&M pairing. But something is amiss, it seems, as the verses develop; it appears as though the slave is almost mocking his master’s new relationship: “your love is a secret all over the block and it never stops, not even when your master fails.” As the love triangle develops the song leads to a physically chilling revelation that has no precedent or antecedent that I know of in songwriting: the slave is the master of his master’s master. Who, other than Cohen, could make such a concept not only musical but beautiful?
It’s a testament to the greatness of this song that despite having been covered into oblivion and having appeared as the makeshift this-is-the-feelings-part song on soundtracks as disparate as Shrek and Watchmen, this magical tune can still give almost anyone chills. Where does that magic come from? In the very first verse, Cohen himself acknowledges the mysterious craft, marveling at the forms that “David played to please the Lord:” “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift, the baffled king composing Hallelujah.” Of the numerous themes at play in this song, the most prominent is the mystery of song itself, the very nature of humanity’s profound urge to sing hallelujah, to praise in verse. But here’s why this song is canonical: it doesn’t just reflect on that eternal theme, it fully embodies it, providing the listener with an experience of spirituality through song in real time, over and over, forever.
Yes, the first song on his first record is the greatest song of his career. In a prelude to so many of his great songs to come, Cohen brings multiple strains of sacred music and text to bear on a lyrical theme that is also deeply personal to him and refers to a specific event in his life. The name Suzanne becomes Hosanna on his lips. A walk to a riverbed becomes an encounter with Christ. His lover transforms into a mirror in which Cohen glimpses the miracle of creation. And, again in a hint of what’s to come in his career, the majesty of the song emerges from the formal mastery of its composition. The first and third verse elaborate his mystical experience with Suzanne while the middle verse is a contrapuntal narrative that envisions Jesus’ walk on the water as a high-stakes appeal to Cohen specifically and that reveals Christ’s divinity through his humanity, his abandonment by his father. The re-interpretation of Biblical stories is a major motif of Cohen’s work and is never more effective than it is here. The absolutely stunning final refrain accounts for the new understanding of Christ that he’s attained in the course of the song: now, he tells himself, “you know that you can trust her” because, like his savior, “she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.” And the physical sensation of awe and light that we feel as listeners is the transfer of that trust from his body— his voice—to our minds.