On the dawn of Leonard Cohen’s new album, here in no particular order are ten of my favourites. These may change tomorrow. And for the record, Hallelujah is great too, but not greater (in this opinion) than any of these.
The work with Sharon Robinson is arguably more conventional than some of his other material (no 15pp fax to John Cale required from these albums, you’d think), but it’s also the closest to soul music – this, In My Secret Life, A Thousand Kisses Deep but it doesn’t stop it being the kind of ballads you can imagine Alicia Keys, Mary J or even Alexandra Burke knocking out the park.
Bird On The Wire
It’s often the opening couplet that gets you. “Like a bird..on the wire/like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free.”
There are about three novels, seven poems, four songs and a couple of half-decent chat-up lines in that alone.
Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
Especially Roberta Flack’s version.
Coming Back To You
This simple love song with its evocative images of “closing down the factories just when all the bills are due” turns into a love song and on every hearing, some of us (OK, perhaps just me) think this should be the go-to Cohen standard. Not Hallelujah, not the Marianne Ihlen songs, nor Suzanne, this. Of course, brilliant artists don’t have one song to which you can pin them down. Pick your favourite Dylan, Bowie, Mitchell, Springsteen, Elton, Marvin, Stevie, Anderson/Ulvaeus. Just one. See?
My Gypsy Wife
For personal reasons. And for the version of Field Commander Cohen, where he says “I don’t believe you’ve met Roscoe Beck on the fretless bass.” After that performance, we sure have. If your band is as impeccable as his make the live albums great.
For anyone who’s ever switched on the Today programme or Question Time, heard men shouting at each other and immediately wanted to switch off…”Everybody knows the dice are loaded…the war is over, the good guys lost…the fight was fixed…the poor stay poor, the rich get rich.”
And he makes the song jolly! This is what separates the poets from the rock stars (though he’s that, too, as Simon Armitage never sold out the O2).
Ain’t No Cure for Love
Being in love is great. It’s agony. It’s perfect. It’s torture. It makes you smile. Not everyone can nail that in three minutes.
Came So Far For Beauty
There’s something about his love songs, like the great romantic poetry, which makes you understand why women were so often putty in his hands, and he in theirs. There’s no fool like an old fool, and he’s always been a romantic old fool. He only started recording in his thirties, so as an artist has thankfully never gone through The Bieber Years. The romance of a song like Came So Far For Beauty takes on fresh perspective when sung by a female voice (see Jennifer Warnes’ rendition on Famous Blue Raincoat).
It would be remiss not to reflect the recent renaissance with Laughing Len’s most productive period from 2012’s Old Ideas to the new record, and celebrate all of it. This is as beautiful as all his late-periods songs.
“There is a crack in everything/That’s where the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen suffered depression, near-bankruptcy, being told his record (the one with Dance Me To The End of Love, Hallelujah and Coming Back To You!) was no good, working with Phil Spector and keeps smiling. This song more than any sums up why he is the master builder of the Tower of Song.