A Guide to Your Inevitable Dive into the Catalogue of Leonard Cohen

A collection of interesting background notes on all of Cohen's studio albums, and through them, a summary of his musical career in 2,000 words.

1934-2016 is a long life, and one Cohen filled with grace, poetry, and one of the most legendary and distinct sounds in recorded music. And like wine, the man’s music got more full and complex with age. Naturally, his catalogue is lighting up online this week with people discovering or rediscovering his songs. This post is a quick and enlightening tour guide for that process. Below are fun-fact summaries of the 14 studio albums from which his legendary career was built, as proxy for a bio of his musical career.

Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)

Cohen’s debut wowed people with a sound famously described as “fresh & ancient.” Songs of Leonard Cohen is best known for producing Cohen’s longest-standing classic, “Suzanne,” a song that got him his record deal. Judy Collins recorded it on her 1966 album, and producer John Hammond saw to it Cohen got a record deal with Columbia on account of it. The calibre of musicians Cohen’s producer brought into the studio for this album terrified Cohen, and in the end, he had to fight with his producer, John Simon, because Simon had built the songs up too much with drums and strings for Cohen’s liking. He mostly won those fights (Some of Simon’s additions couldn’t be removed from the four-track master tape). Still young and caught up in a greedy industry, Cohen was schemed out of the rights to both “Suzanne” and “Stranger Song.” One more fact:  “Master Song” was written on a stone bench in Montreal at the corner of Burnside and Guy Street.

Songs from a Room (1969)

After his spats with John Simon on his debut album, Cohen sought out producer Bob Johnson with the hope he’d understand Cohen’s sound more, and interfere with his vision less. Johnson was known for his work with Simon and Garfunkel at this time, and the resulting album was stripped-down to make the lyrics the focus. The album is best known for “Bird on a Wire,” a song he began writing in Greece, while living on the island of Hydra with Marianne. Marianne handed him a guitar one day, encouraging him to emerge from a funk, and out came a song inspired by a bird sitting on a newly installed telephone wire. “When the wires first went up,” Cohen said, “I’d stare out the window at these telephone wires and think how civilization had caught up with me and I wasn’t going to be able to escape after all. I wasn’t going to be able to live this 11th-century life that I thought I had found for myself.” He opened most of his concerts with this song, and Kris Kristofferson claims he’ll be quoting the song on his gravestone.

Songs of Love and Hate (1971)

Unsurprisingly, Cohen worked with Bob Johnson again on this album — Bob joked his was a bodyguard for Cohen’s sound to protect it from studio pressures to sound a certain way. The album title reflects the dark time this was for Cohen. “Absolutely everything was beginning to fall apart around me: my spirit, my intentions, my will.” Its dark lyrics include those of “Joan of Arc”; the song is a conversation between Joan of Arc and the fire that burned her alive. It’s a song about meeting and marrying your destiny. “Famous Blue Raincoat” is another classic off the album, and addresses a love triangle and affair, though it’s also a reference to his own blue raincoat (which was stolen from Marianne’s apartment in the early 70s). “Last Year’s Man” was written on a Mexican 12-string that Cohen confessed to smashing one day “by jumping on it in a fit of impotent fury.” Hard days indeed! Though this album marked the man as a downer for some simpler critics, Rolling Stone included it on their Top 500 Albums of All Time. “Avalanche” is a perfect example of Cohen’s uniquely choppy classical guitar pattern, and the song was covered by Nick Cave on From Her to Eternity.

New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)

Cohen’s 4th album marked a move towards a new sound, and saw him embracing the idea of more going on in his songs. Most notably, there’s percussion here, a lot of backup singing, and string accompaniment. There’s also humour. Cohen tracked down a young producer named John Lissauer, sat on his couch, and played him his new songs. Lissauer surrounded Cohen with some new musicians and added a more European tinge to his tunes — fitting given that Cohen had caught on more in Europe than North America. There’s definitely a sense of a driven, confident musician here who’s come into his own and is ready to grow and explore. An album classic, “Chelsea Hotel #2,” is about a memorable sexual encounter he had in the hotel with Janis Joplin. Later in life he apologized for revealing who the song was about. Track 3, “Lover, Lover, Lover” is a lively jam that definitely surprised long-time listeners of Cohen. The album, and change of sound, almost never happened. “For a while, I didn’t think there was going to be another album,” he has confessed. “I pretty well felt that I was washed up as a songwriter because it wasn’t coming anymore.” But he’d gone to Ethiopia “looking for a suntan” and had a guitar with him, and the songs came naturally.

Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977)

For his 5th album, Cohen really kept the whole “growing as an artist” thing going by working with Phil Spector, a producer legendary for creating a famous “wall of sound” that really thickened up an artist’s songs. The pairing of an eccentric with an introvert was wild but epic, in that Cohen has never sounded the same since (except for the album that would follow this one). Cohen was big in Europe, but his sleepy sound wasn’t catching on as much in North America, and this album may have been a response to that, a compromise of getting livelier or thicker in sound on his own terms. Spector’s career was also in a strange place, and he was developing a bit of a reputation as a gun-obsessed wildcard. So much so, Joni Mitchell tried to warn Cohen about working with him. But the two of them saw something in each other, and wound up basically co-writing the album in a very productive, booze-fueled month. On account of Spector’s penchant for air conditioning, Cohen wore an overcoat the whole time, and by the end of the process, Cohen was seeing the side of Spector he’d been warned about. It was like his first record all over again. “I wasn’t in the right kind of condition to resist Phil’s very strong influence on and eventual takeover of the record,” he has said. “There were lots of guns around in the studio and lots of liquor, a somewhat dangerous atmosphere.” One of them were apparently pointed at Cohen’s throat one night. Regardless, Death of a Ladies’ Man was born to very mixed review. And Allen Ginsberg & Bob Dylan can be heard singing backups on “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-on.”

Recent Songs (1979)

Recent Songs sounds like a purposeful stutter-step backwards in time to a sound well before whatever parts of himself he was letting out on his previous two records. In fairness, Cohen was slaughtered in reviews for his previous album and co-write with Phil Spector (dunno why, it was a great record). Henry Levy produced this one, as he was working with Joni Mitchell at the time, and she recommended him to Cohen. Around 2000, in reflecting on his career, Cohen called this album a personal favourite, which is surprising. As a result of it being an artist in creative limbo, it’s rarely cited as anyone’s favourite, but, it has its gems, like “The Gypsy’s Wife” and “Ballad of the Absent Mare.” The latter was inspired by his Zen Master Roshi, and covered on Emmylou Harris’s album Cowgirl’s Prayer. Working with Levy allowed Cohen to do something he’d always wanted to try: combining Middle Eastern or Eastern European sounds “with the rhythmic possibilities of a jazz or rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section.” One notable aspect of the album is that it’s the first time  Sharon Robinson joined him in the studio as a singer, and from here on, the two became long-time collaborators. Sharon is credited with really getting his career back on the tracks with 2001’s Ten New Songs (they co-wrote it) after his hiatus from music.

Various Positions (1984)

Various Positions is best known as the album that gave the world one of the its most famous and most covered songs, “Hallelujah” — a song covered so much even Cohen has joked, in Rolling Stone, that the world needs to halt any more covers of it. But he agonized over it, wrote 80 verses, and at one point, found himself in his underwear on a hotel floor, banging his head off the ground willing the right words. The drums on “Dance Me to the End of the Earth” are actually not drums, but a casiotone. It is a little known fact that the song is about death camps during the holocaust. “Beside the crematoria, ” Cohen has said, “a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on … they would be playing classical music while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt.” Cohen’s record label at the time told him “Look, Leonard; we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good,” meaning they didn’t think they could sell his new music to people, and in fact, refused to release the record in The States. So some of the world’s most popular songs were poorly underestimated upon their creation.

I’m Your Man (1988)

I’m Your Man is best known for marking another measurable change in Cohen’s sound, towards something more busy and orchestral, so much so that Rolling Stone joked it was “the first Cohen album that can be listened to during the daylight hours. ” The album was also noted for the start of him really playing up his gravelly voice. This was important to Cohen, who felt his voice had been inappropriate for many of his albums in the 1970s. In 1997, he told Uncut magazine, “On I’m Your Man, my voice had settled and I didn’t feel ambiguous about it. I could at last deliver the songs with the authority and intensity required.” On that note, of gravelly voices, it is unsurprising that Tom Waits calls this album one of his favourites. On the deeping of his voice, Cohen has said, “My voice has gotten very very deep over the years and seems even to be deepening. I thought it was because of 50,000 cigarettes and several swimming pools of whiskey that my voice has gotten low. But I gave up smoking a couple of years ago and it’s still getting deeper.” One of the album’s classics, “First We Take Manhattan,” was a early tackling of extremism and terrorism. “Tower of Song,” another Cohen classic, almost never made the cut. Struggling with the lyrics for this song about crafting songs, he cut it from the album, but, finished the lyrics in Montreal right before the album was released, called his producer, and it was recorded after all, in one take.

The Future (1992)

There was a lot going on around the time Cohen recorded The Future. He began his relationship with actress Rebecca De Mornay, and he took a break from touring to care for his son Adam, after a car accident left Adam in a coma. As a result, the album was chaotically recorded across 10+ studios, as far flung from each other as Montreal & L.A., and the credit list on the album is vast.  He really struggled with finalizing all these songs — he wrote 60 verses for “Democracy,” and “Anthem” took him a decade to “get right,” but that was worth it, clearly, as it yielded his most famous lines, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” The album focusses a lot on politics and history because “I was living in L.A. through the riots and the earthquakes and the floods.”

Ten New Songs (2001)

Ten New Songs was his first studio album since 1992, because in 1994, at the height of a busy, bustling career, Cohen, unhappy, and “drinking 3 bottles of wine a night,” ran off to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center to spend time with his Zen Master Joshu Sasaki, and the sabbatical lasted 5 years. Upon his return, he was still reportedly in a reclusive state of mind, and hadn’t recorded in a long time. He shared some lyrics with his long-time backup singer Sharon Robinson, and he was blown away with what she did with them, musically. The album was a true collaboration between them, recorded at his and her home studios, and was received with a bang, going platinum in Canada and Poland, and hitting #1 in Norway. The grainy photo of them on the cover was taken by Cohen on a crappy webcam during the recording of the album.

Dear Heather (2004)

Sharon Robinson again appears heavily in the credits on this album because “No More A-Roving,” “The Letters,” and “There For You” were produced by her in 2001 for the album Ten New Songs they co-wrote and she produced. The rest of the album’s songs were Cohen experimenting with various styles, and dipping into his past work. Lyrics from “To a Teacher” were taken from his 1961 book of poetry, The Spice Box of Earth; Some of the tracks from “The Faith” date back 1979’s Recent Songs sessions. For this reason, he almost called the album Old Ideas, but worried the name would come off as compilation album. Many noted the album marked Cohen’s transition towards spoken word over pure singing, and the album hit #1 in all the way over in Poland.

Old Ideas (2012)

Old Ideas marked Cohen’s first studio album in 8 years, and there was a reason for it: after a 15-year break from touring, Cohen had to spend much of the 2000s touring like mad for financial reasons, because his manager stole his life savings (and retirement plan). He was broke. But the ensuing tours were well-received 3-hour powerhouse performances that many critics say re-energized his creative spirit, in addition to his bank account. When Cohen found time to record again, the world took note: Old Ideas topped the charts in 11 countries, including Finland, where Cohen became, at 77, the country’s oldest chart-topping musician.

Popular Problems (2014)

Popular Problems featured all new recordings of all new songs … except “Born in Chains.” Its origins date way back to a recorded soundcheck in 1985. Also, words from Cohen’s 2006 book, Book of Longing, became lyrics from “A Street” on this album. Lastly, “Nevermind” was picked up by HBO’s True Detective as the theme music for season 2!

You Want it Darker (2016)

This album will always be remembered for being released just weeks before Cohen died, and fittingly focussing on death and “the maker” in its lyrics. To quote the title track, he sounds quite accepting and aware of his coming end, “You want it darker, we kill the flame.” 82 years into his life, he was still writing and recording music, and it’s safe to say Cohen is the only 80-something musician charting right now in Canada, the US, and the UK. Cohen’s son, Adam, produced the record.

Reminder! The Overcast is collecting Cohen Cover Songs This Month (and Covers by Other Recently Fallen Icons)
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