A cult-favorite poet from Quebec who wrote the most ubiquitous song of his generation, who didn’t command the largest audiences of his career until he was in his 70s, who had limited vocal range but an endless vocabulary — Leonard Cohen looms as such a large figure in music because he never followed expectations or conventional wisdom, building the kind of career and biography that will never be replicated. His acclaimed catalog of music and writing, coupled with that transfixing voice, strong sense of style and Zen disposition, make you want to hang onto his every word, to try and use all he says as a guide for living. He’s a musician second and a philosopher — lover of wisdom — first.
Songs of Leonard Cohen, the singer-songwriter’s nearly 50-year-old debut record, still holds up as perhaps his most essential work. It’s not the album with “Hallelujah,” but it contains many of Cohen’s most beloved and oft-covered songs. It’s an ideal entry point into a lengthy, impressive career that never followed any kind of straightforward path. It was released in the ’60s, when folk music dominated the charts, but even now that its style feels of a different era, the idiosyncratic work of Songs remains an important, easy-to-obsess-over work of art.
Cohen announced himself in the most unbelievable way with “Suzanne,” the immortal opening track of Songs. The song is an out-of-body experience, as Cohen narrates an encounter by a river with a dream-like vision of a woman, with whom he draws explicit parallels to Jesus Christ. It’s barely a pop song, but rather a search for enlightenment — one man trying to understand life with just an acoustic guitar and a desire for connection.
Cohen positions himself as an old-school troubadour on Songs, a timeless artist looking for meaning through his muses and stories. Many of these tracks are about people he has crossed paths with, especially women who have inspired him, and they’re all poetic ballads and epics in the folk and storytelling tradition. “Suzanne” may as well be Athena. “Marianne” is Eurydice. These songs are worldly, detailed and multi-faceted — understandable, considering Cohen was already an accomplished writer before his music career and didn’t release this album until he was 33.
Unlike many other folk singers of his era, Leonard Cohen was never known for acidic wit or complexly funny turns of phrase, and he stays remarkably clear-headed throughout Songs. While Dylan would tell a departing lover, “You just kind of wasted my precious time,” Cohen offers only, “Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.” While Van Morrison would collapse into a puddle of ecstasy upon meeting a woman who seems like Jesus, Cohen stays calm, letting the listener absorb all he has to say without embellishment.
But despite Cohen’s quite-earned reputation for deep-thought seriousness, his warmth and sense of humor are consistently underrated. “Sisters of Mercy,” which closes side one, is one of the album’s true joys. Written about two hitchhikers Cohen met in Edmonton and scored with celebratory percussion, “Sisters” is a simple ode to human interaction and spontaneous gifts, as Cohen thanks the two women for inspiring this song. It’s music that shows how one can be occupied with the meaning of life while still appreciating the everyday wonders. A lot of people characterize Leonard Cohen as “depressing,” but that deep voice belies a warm romantic, one who’s always hopeful for a better world even in his lowest moments.
Undeniably, Cohen’s legacy will be “Hallelujah” in the way Frost’s is “The Road Not Taken” and Da Vinci’s is the Mona Lisa. It’s a brilliant piece of art that has earned an unlikely place in the mainstream public consciousness. For as long as people sing, that song — in forms both transcendent and awful — will always be.
But it’s more than worth it to explore Leonard Cohen beyond just “Hallelujah.” As Songs of Leonard Cohen and his entire body of work demonstrates, he was an immensely intelligent artist with empathy for everyone. To listen to Leonard Cohen sing in that uniquely transfixing voice was to learn and to live, to dream of and to believe in a vision of the world only someone as strange and thoughtful and beautiful as him could truly understand.
Goodbyes and hellos, adventures and failures, the holy and the broken — he sang about them all. Leonard Cohen helped put us in better touch with the world, and he connected his listeners to the wonders of living. Cohen could take emotions that you couldn’t quite describe yourself and spin them into grand tales that explored the mysteries of love and life while never losing touch with the basic humanity these feelings came from.