Because he is better known from usually inferior cover versions of his songs (Judy Collins’ “Suzanne” being the blandest), Montreal’s Leonard Cohen (who died in November 2016) was frequently taken for a singer/songwriter in a sullen variation on the James Taylor sensitive mold. But this world-weary, ironic commentator on romantic despair had more in common with Serge Gainsbourg, Bryan Ferry and Bertolt Brecht than Jackson Browne. It’s not for nothing his 1966 novel is entitled Beautiful Losers.
Which is not to say there is not congruence between Cohen and the singer/songwriter world. His early albums betray their roots as poems set to rudimentary chords. Cohen’s vocals are half-sung/half-talked, like a rock’n’roll Rex Harrison but, like Dylan, he is a talented non-singer, able to extract a wide range of emotion from a limited range. (Over the years it has lowered from an ardent, almost earnest tenor to a gruff, insinuating growl.) But “Chelsea Hotel” (from New Skin for the Old Ceremony) and “Famous Blue Raincoat” (from Songs of Love and Hate) exhibit an exquisite sense of place; the cantorial “Who by Fire?” (New Skin) and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” (from Songs of Leonard Cohen) have their moments. The Best Of album is a worthy sampler of this era.
His next move was a label change and a puzzling collaboration with Phil Spector. Almost 20 years later, Death of a Ladies’ Man doesn’t sound like the unmitigated disaster critics (and the artist) considered it to be at the time. There’s no denying the album was flawed from conception: Spector’s wall of sound was created to contain black-and-white, adolescent emotions; it would be hard to name a songwriter who inhabits a larger gray area than Cohen. The production overwhelms Cohen (it also overwhelms Dylan, who is credited but impossible to detect as a background vocalist), although some worthy songs are there to be heard beneath the rubble: “True Love Leaves No Traces” and “I Can’t Forget.” Cohen took something away from those sessions; his subsequent albums have been steadily more produced. The mariachi-accented Recent Songs is intriguing but the songs don’t really measure up.
Cohen moved to Greece in the late ’70s and appears to have lived the life of the gentleman artist. While his latter-day bohemianiasm has slowed his production (he averages an album every four years), the quality of his work had never been higher. On Various Positions, Cohen shares the vocals with Jennifer Warnes (whose subsequent Famous Blue Raincoat consists entirely of his songs). The material is darker, the arrangements sparser, setting off Cohen’s apocalyptic imagination (“Dance Me to the End of Love,” the surreal “The Law”) and his continued fascination with religious imagery (the extraordinary “Hallelujah,” “If It Be Your Will”).
Cohen’s best album, I’m Your Man, is also his most sophisticated, with the artist exhibiting a sure sense of, and control over, his music. A panoply of keyboards and driving basslines hint at the hedonism of dance music, but the arrangements echo the high, spacey, unresolved harmonies of Weimar Berlin. All told, they form an ironic counterpoint to the songs’ pessimism about the music industry and the modern world. “First We Take Manhattan” is Cohen’s fantasy of commercial success, conflated with fascism, a vision of victory undercut by the spoils of a battle not really worth winning. In “Everybody Knows,” a worried lover meditates on faithlessness and AIDS; in “The Tower of Song,” he ruefully contemplates his career. “I was born like this, I had no choice,” Cohen deadpans, “I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
The Future suffers only by comparison. While song for song the equal to I’m Your Man, it lacks the prior album’s impact. In the title track, while a gospel-tinged soul groove churns behind him, Cohen longs for a return to the days of “the Berlin Wall/and anal sex” because he’s “seen the future/and it’s murder.” A minor-key country two-step plays during the desperate erotic scramble of last call in “Closing Time.” And there’s an eight-minute version of Irving Berlin’s “Always” that turns the lyric into a not-so-veiled threat. Cohen Live is a fine souvenir of one of Cohen’s infrequent tours.
As if to underscore Cohen’s appeal and influence, he’s been the subject of two major-label tribute albums. I’m Your Fan, the better option, posits Cohen as an alternative-rock godfather. R.E.M., the Pixies, Lloyd Cole and Nick Cave (who covered Cohen’s “Avalanche” on From Her to Eternity) state the case best, easily making Cohen’s songs their own. Cave’s version of “Tower of Song” has to be heard to be believed — it takes the title literally, doing each line in a different style. The singer rethinks the material so radically that it’s almost unrecognizable; a more conservative version by Robert Forster (of the Go-Betweens) is also included.
Tower of Song, which has no overriding agenda, is worth hearing for Bono’s techno rendition of “Hallelujah,” Aaron Neville’s country soul take on “Ain’t No Cure for Love” and Suzanne Vega’s respectful “Story of Isaac.” But Don Henley and Billy Joel miss Cohen’s irony, turning their selections (“Everybody Knows” and “Light as the Breeze,” respectively) into empty, heavy-handed lite-rock ballads.
Released more than two decades after the fact, Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979 is heavy with tunes from that year’s Recent Songs, plus a few oldies like “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on the Wire.” With the help of members of progressive jazz band Passengers, plus backup vocals by Jennifer Warnes and Sharon Robinson, the album is a tasteful and worthy affair. (The ever-classy Cohen lists Robinson as “consultant” in the liner notes.)
Maybe it was all that time in Buddhist seclusion, or perhaps he’s just mellowing with age, but Ten New Songs, his first album in a decade, lacks the old Cohen magic (read: bitterness). Every track here was co-written with Robinson, known for her work with Cohen on the stunning, accusatory “Everybody Knows.” Nothing on this album is quite that great, although it’s all adequate; this is no Death of a Ladies Man. Still, the best that Cohen and Robinson can manage is the breathy “A Thousand Kisses Deep” and the fragile whimsy of “That Don’t Make It Junk.”