Poet. Novelist. Buddhist monk. Renowned ladies’ man. One of the greatest Canadian songwriters who has ever lived. Who else can I be talking about, other than one Leonard Cohen? His music has been around for 35 years now, first entrancing young baby boomers in university coffeehouses with his tenor-voiced dreamy songs of love and loss, and 20 years later, appearing as the epitome of cool to young Gen X-ers with his new, raspy, baritone-voiced songs of sardonicism, doom, and more love. It’s high time the next generation of kids got to know the guy, and The Essential Leonard Cohen is the perfect place for them to start.
Born in Montreal in 1934, Cohen was a bit of an odd duck when he emerged onto the folk scene in 1967; after all, he was 33, considerably older than all the young groundbreakers in popular music at the time, and besides that, he was already a published poet and writer, with three volumes of poetry and two highly acclaimed novels already under his belt (these days, if a writer tried to be a pop singer, the term “media whore” would be used often by cynics). His maturity, his simple, understated songwriting (combining elements of Bob Dylan’s early folk and Charles Aznavour’s sophistication), and his great poetic talent gave him a big advantage over his younger peers, and when his first album was released, it was like he was a seasoned veteran.
Nearly half of the songs on The Essential Leonard Cohen focus on Cohen’s three greatest albums. His 1967 debut The Songs of Leonard Cohen is represented by five tracks, and it’s hard to argue with his selections. The classic ballad “Suzanne”, the one Cohen song all our parents know, gained recognition when folk singer Judy Collins put out a rather dowdy version of the song in 1966. Cohen’s version, however, is gorgeous, as he sings in that completely unpretentious young voice of his, sparsely accompanied by a quiet acoustic guitar, some very subtle strings, and his siren-like background singers (a device Cohen would employ, with great effect, for his entire career). The darkly esoteric “The Stranger” evokes Dylan’s surreal storytelling during 1965-66, while the gentle “Sisters of Mercy” shows more compassion for a restless spirit than Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” did (“You who must leave everything that you cannot control / It begins with your family / But soon it comes round to your soul”). “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”, and especially the Celtic-tinged waltz “So Long Marianne”, both with more of those entrancing female vocals, are two of the prettiest love songs you’ll ever hear.
When compared to his first album, Cohen’s change in his singing voice in the ‘80s is startling, but it’s also much better. Gone is the slightly nasal croon; in its place is a cigarette-ravaged, deep voice that betrays a weary vision of the world in the late Eighties. 1988’s I’m Your Man is a spectacular piece of work, and Cohen seems to feel the same way, as six of that album’s eight tracks are on this compilation. “Everybody Knows”, which was introduced to people my age in the very good movie Pump Up the Volume, has Cohen sounding like a dryly comic voice of doom, over a hypnotic synth accompaniment: “Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed: the poor stay poor, the rich get rich / That’s how it goes”. The ominous “First We Take Manhattan”, with its classic opening lines, “They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom for trying to change the system from within. I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them”, perfectly encapsulates the growing cynical sentiment late in the “Me” decade. The Kurt Weill-goes-jazz sound of “I’m Your Man” has Cohen at his most carnal (“I’d howl at your beauty like a dog in heat / And I’d claw at your heart / And I’d tear at your sheet”), while the slinky “Tower of Song” is Cohen at his most melancholy (“My friends are gone and my hair is gray / I ache in the places where I used to play”), and “Ain’t No Cure For Love”, with its syrupy synths and saxophone solo, quickly transcends the rather dated musical arrangement. Meanwhile, the astonishing, beautiful “Take This Waltz” (based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem “Pequeno Vals Vienes”) is also one of the most poetic English interpretations of a Lorca poem you will ever come across.
There are also five selections from Cohen’s outstanding 1992 album The Future, which had Cohen focusing more on the state of the world after the Gulf War. He sounds downright menacing on the album’s title track, as he very sarcastically looks at a world gone completely astray: “Give me back the Berlin Wall / Give me Stalin and St. Paul / I’ve seen the future, brother: / It is murder”. Cohen describes America as “the cradle of the best and worst” on “Democracy”, an acid-tongued satire of Americana in all its worst elements, and on the powerful “Waiting for the Miracle”, he depicts a culture desperate for enlightenment. One of the most upbeat songs Cohen has ever written, “Closing Time” is an irresistible, playful, alcohol-soaked romp that is full of surreal humor (“And my very close companion / Gets me fumbling, gets me laughing / She’s a hundred but she’s wearing something tight”). On “Anthem”, he tells us that things are always darkest before the dawn, and offers up a bit of optimism, intoning, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”.
The rest of the album is a constant parade of classics, from nearly all of Cohen’s other albums (with the exception of 1973’s Live Songs and the disastrous, Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies’ Man, from 1977). There’s the oft-covered “Bird on a Wire”, the moody “The Partisan”, the timeless songs “Chelsea Hotel #2” and “Famous Blue Raincoat”. “Hallelujah”, which has been famously covered by both Jeff Buckley and John Cale, is stunning, and the live rendition of his 1984 song “Dance Me to the End of Love” is Cohen at his most romantic. It’s a bit of a surprise that four songs from his 2001 album Ten New Songs have been included, but they more than hold their own on this compilation, especially the exquisite “In My Secret Life”. Author Pico Iyer provides some well-written, insightful liner notes.
Diehard fans will definitely have many different complaints of their own (I can practically hear the bickering over the exclusion of “Joan of Arc” and “Last Year’s Man”), but Leonard Cohen has done an outstanding job selecting over two and a half hours’ worth of his most timeless music. For first-time listeners, this is the absolute best place to start their love affair with Cohen’s music; almost every album is represented, and newcomers can decide which full album they’ll move onto next. This is the twelfth release in Sony’s Essential series, which has included artists like Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Santana, and Johnny Cash, with rather spotty results; however, this lovely compilation is the first in the series that truly deserves the title “Essential”.