This weekend sees one of the true musical icons of the last forty years – Leonard Cohen – turn eighty. I considered many options for a playlist to celebrate this: his finest songs from the 1980s, or perhaps the tracks most inspired by Plato’s philosophy… I came to the conclusion though that the best celebration of all would be a no-frills assembling of the Canadian’s eight best songs in chronological order. Here then, is my loving ode to the octogenarian’s finest.
My iTunes play count for this song stands at seventy-six – and that doesn’t include just listening to the record, or the various live versions I have. Despite the near obsessive amount of listening to this song, though, it still carries an ethereal sense of mystery that will just never be cracked. Suzanne is Leonard’s first musical muse (this is track one of his first album), but she is also his most famous, as she is memorably portrayed as the Platonic ultimate in this hypnotic song.
One of Us Cannot Be Wrong
Cohen’s début album concludes with this gorgeous and twisted ode to Nico of Lou Reed’s band The Velvet Underground. The song begins with Cohen talking of his attempts to get her romantic attention with scented candles before descending into twisted modernist lyrics, which even Jeff Mangum – the master of twisted modernism – would be proud of.
An Eskimo showed me a movie he’d recently taken of you
The poor man could hardly stop shivering – his lips and his fingers were blue
I suppose he froze when the wind tore off your clothes
And I guess he just never got warm
But you’re standing there so nice in your blizzard of ice
Oh, please le me come into the storm
The nickname “Laughing Len” is an ironic gesture to accompany the fact that Cohen’s lyrics can have very dark undertones. This is most apparent on his third LP Songs of Love and Hate; the opening track of which, ‘Avalanche’, steps into the psyche of a hunchback lusting over gold and women (the Nazi archetype of the Jewish people).
Death of a Ladies’ Man
The majority of Cohen’s collaborative album with Phil Spector – Death of a Ladies’ Man - has never been truly explored; this is because Leonard himself has discarded it as being overly instrumented. Despite it not being to Cohen’s liking though, the instrumentation is luscious and his lyrics are as canny as ever. This is most apparent on the sprawling nine minute title track.
If It Be Your Will
I wrote a song, well it’s more of a prayer
This prayer turned poem turned song from 1984 finds Cohen in his most philosophical, as he delivers a beautiful discourse on spiritual devotion. The Webb Sisters’ divine voices from this live performance in 2008 take this song to another level.
Tower of Song
By the late 1980s, Cohen was comfortable enough in his song writing capabilities to produce the odd piece of cynical satire. He does this with greatest aplomb on ‘Tower of Song’, where he pictures himself in a dystopian tower, accompanied by Hank Williams and other famous musicians, forced to slave over writing hit song after hit song.
It is understandable that with such a gruff voice, Cohen is renown for his downbeat lyrics. Yet here is a true anthem (no pun intended) of optimism and hope in the darkest situations; there is always a crack, where the light of hope can get in.
At the age of 80, he’s still going strong: his 13th LP (Popular Problems) is set for release next week. This is the opening track from 2012’s Old Ideas and shows that he is as insightful and fascinating as ever with a voice that seems to have matured over time. Here’s to another 80 years.
I love to speak with Leonard. He’s a sportsman and a shepherd, he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.