The wise David Hepworth made another shrewd comment when he said that perhaps it was the recently deceased Leonard Cohen rather than Bob Dylan who was the more deserving Nobel Prize winner for literature from the ranks of pop/rock songwriters.
In my own first flush of musical education, I actually read more articles and reviews about Cohen than heard his songs. At that time, as posted earlier, Joni Mitchell was for me the most accomplished and most literate songwriter and musician. Not until the 1980s did I get my first sustained listen to Cohen with the compilation album which was released in the UK under the title Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits. By this time Cohen was gaining renewed attention as an influence on some younger artists like Lloyd Cole and Nick Cave.
Coincidentally, I recall a review of Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits in Melody Maker at the time of its original release in 1975. A curious title for a Cohen album, the journalist remarked – his songs had not recently graced the Top 20. Unless, he went on to muse, the title applied to the number of times Cohen “hit” the nail on the head, with his shrewd lyrical analyses and observations? That would make the title highly appropriate.
It is irrefutable that Bob Dylan had a wider and deeper cultural influence during the 1960s and 1970s than did Cohen, so, on that count, he is the more deserving of the Nobel Prize. However, the internet now allows a free and easy listen to all of Cohen’s work, and some of those songs really are brilliant, are they not?
Skilfully and thoughtfully crafted, technically precise and crammed with vivid images. Musical influences from traditional ballads or Jacques Brel or Kurt Weill or others from the earlier 20th century, lyrical influences from the Bible, Bertolt Brecht, Walt Whitman and Federico Garcia Lorca. Imagery which is often not immediately contemporary and therefore timeless. A long list of highlights would come from all periods of Cohen’s career: “Suzanne”, “The Master”, “Hey That’s No Way to say Goodbye”, “Sisters of Mercy”, “The Story of Isaac”, “The Partisan”, “The Old Revolution”, “Last Year’s Man”, “Love Calls You by Your Name”, “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Joan of Arc”, “The Guests”, “The Ballad of the Absent Mare”, “Dance Me to the End of Love”, “Hallelujah”, “First We Take Manhattan”, “Everybody Knows”, “Democracy”.
Although many songs shine brightest in the simple guitar playing style he began with, Cohen was clever enough to work with collaborators who helped him construct sensitive arrangements which drew from traditional or jazz or classical idioms. Even the most glaring exception to that rule – Death of a Ladies’ Man, the 1977 album where music as well as production is credited to the ostentatious and eccentric Phil Spector – probably merits fresh attention for its novelty.
Throughout Cohen’s career listeners often regarded his music as bleak and pessimistic. As a youthful fan of Neil Young I never felt such criticism was fairly applied to him and I certainly felt it was equally unfair to Cohen. His singing voice was always of a narrow range, but that could just as easily be applied to singers of other sub-genres like Robert Plant or Bruce Springsteen or Adele. That narrowness would certainly be a problem if the songs were not sufficiently varied. With Cohen they definitely were varied, and were regularly performed, as suggested earlier, by a sympathetic group of supportive instrumentalists and backing vocalists.
In his performance and public persona, Cohen aged gracefully as he retained his musical popularity. He was fond of classic male tailoring, was well-groomed, softly and thoughtfully spoken and known for asking for high-quality wine in his dressing-room after performances. As a man born into a Jewish family in French-speaking Canada, who had once lived in Greece and later as a Buddhist monk in Tibet, he was respected and celebrated as someone who was part of and comfortable in many different cultural and spiritual traditions.
Perhaps because of Cohen’s Jewishness rather than his North American background, I find when I listen to him that I think of other disparate cultural figures who were part the changing landscape of mid-century and post-war Europe. Film-makers like Buñuel and Wajda and De Sica and Truffaut, writers like Lorca, Havel and Auden.