Listening to Leonard

Over the last week, I’ve re-listened to all of Leonard Cohen’s albums in chronological order. And, most importantly, I’ve rated them.

14: Recent Songs (1979)
Sorry, but this is the one that I really didn’t get. In “Humbled in Love” it contains one of my favourite Leonard Cohen songs, but the rest of the collection really doesn’t do it for me. The received wisdom is that this was a major return to form following the rather dodgy Death of a Ladies’ Man — but I can’t see it. If I wanted to play someone an album that reinforces the stereotype of Cohen songs being depressing dirges, then this is the one I’d choose.

13: Dear Heather (2004)
 I’m generally a big fan of Cohen’s more recent albums, but this is an exception. I don’t actively dislike it in the way I do Recent Songs, but It’s very rare that I’ll choose to listen to it over any other Cohen album. There are some flashes of Cohen’s dark humour here, but you have to go looking quite hard in order to find them. And then there’s that version of “Tennesse Waltz”. I’m really not sure what to make of that.

12: You Want it Darker (2016)
 This was released just a few weeks ago. And it’s only so far down the list because I haven’t listened to it enough to really know how much I like it. As with Bowie’s Blackstar, the fact that it was released so close to Cohen’s death means that it will always be linked to that tragic event and will inevitably be seen as his farewell to his fans. On listening to it this week (for what may have been only the third time) I enjoyed it. If I revisit this list in a few years, there’s a good chance that it will be higher.

11: Popular Problems (2014)
 Another album that I really haven’t given the attention that it deserves. To be honest, I’m surprised to find it came out two years ago. It seems like only a few months. I don’t know the album well enough to recognise particular songs, but while listening to it this week I was pleasantly surprised by how familiar it sounded even though I can’t have listened to it more than half a dozen times.

10: Old Ideas (2012)
 It’s astonishing to me how productive Cohen became in his final years. There’s an eight year gap between his previous album (Dear Heather) and this one. But then he releases this, Popular Problems and You Want it Darker all in quick succession. It’s like he’s determined to get as much material as possible out there before the end. And like the other two albums in this loose “trilogy” I don’t know it particularly well. I suppose I should count myself lucky that there are still three more Leonard Cohen albums that I need to listen to a lot more.

9: Songs from a Room (1969)
 From Cohen’s last three albums, we leap back to the beginning of his career. This was his second album and it built on the success of Songs of Leonard Cohen. It opens with one of his best-loved songs, “Bird on the Wire”, and closes with the impressive run of “You Know Who I Am”, “Lady Midnight” and “You Know Who I Am”. First albums can be a fluke. But a follow-up of this quality marks you as a real talent.

8: New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)
 By 1974, Cohen is firing on all cylinders. Many of your favourite Leonard Cohen songs are on this album — “Chelsea Hotel #2”, “There is a War”, “A Singer Must Die”, “Who By Fire”. Only the closing “Leaving Greensleeves” strikes a slightly jarring note.

7: Ten New Songs (2001)
 How do you follow an album like The Future? In Cohen’s case, the answer is you go away for nine years (five of which you spend in a zen monastery) before surprising your fans with a great new album. Songs like “In My Secret Life”, “A Thousand Kisses Deep” and “Here It Is” are as good as anything he ever recorded. This album is often overlooked, but is well worth investigating.

6: Various Positions (1984)
 Another largely overlooked mid-career album. Or, rather, it would be if it wasn’t for one single track. This is the album that includes “Hallelujah”. I used to believe that it was impossible to record a bad version of “Hallelujah”. But that was when only talented people like John Cale and Jeff Buckley had discovered it. Now I’m not so sure. There are plenty of other great songs on this album too though. The first track, “Dance Me to the End of Love” was the usual opener to Cohen’s live shows.

5: Songs of Love and Hate (1971)
 Back to the early part of Cohen’s career. This was his third album. It didn’t move much from the successful formula of the previous two albums, but that’s no bad thing as that still makes for a great album. In “Famous Blue Raincoat”, this features my favourite Leonard Cohan song, but there are other great songs too — including “Dress Rehearsal Rag”, “Diamonds in the Mine” and “Joan of Arc”.

4: Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977)
 This is likely to be controversial. Not everyone likes this album. Cohen himself is on record calling the recording a “catastrophe” and he only ever played one song from the album (“Memories”) in concert. But I like it. I think that “True Love Leaves No Traces” and “Paper Thin Hotel” are two of the loveliest songs that Cohen ever wrote. Ok, “Fingerprints” is a bit cheesy, but surely it’s impossible to listen to “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On” without smiling.

3: Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
 There are very few debut albums as good as this one. Even almost fifty years after it’s release, most of Cohen’s best-known songs are from this album — “Suzanne”, “Sisters of Mercy”, “So Long, Marianne”, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”. And the songs that aren’t so well-known are just as good — I’m particularly fond of “Stranger Song”.

2: I’m Your Man (1988)
 When I first discovered the joys of Leonard Cohen, this was his latest album. And it was completely different to the other examples of his work that I had come across (things like Songs of Leonard Cohen). This was certainly different, but it was just as good — perhaps even better. I immediately loved things like “First We Take Manhattan” and “Everybody Knows” but later on the less immediate songs also gripped me. “Tower of Song” is now on of my favourite Cohen songs.

1: The Future (1992)
 This was the first album that Cohen released whilst I was following his career; the first of his albums that I bought as soon as it was released. And it’s a nearly perfect album. It’s hard to choose a favourite song. The title track is great. “Democracy” and “Anthem” are both wonderful songs with lyrics that really resonate. And I will always love “Closing Time”. I would recommend this album to anyone. If you don’t love it then your musical taste needs serious recalibration.

This is all purely subjective of course. And if I made the list again in six months time, it could well be completely different. What do you think? Have I put you favourite Leonard Cohen album high enough?


Originally published at blog.dave.org.uk on November 19, 2016.

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