Leonard Cohen, the 82-year-old songwriter and poet, made headlines this week thanks to the publication of a revealing New Yorker feature story. It was a deeply personal article that covered such topics as his declining health and the fact that he is “ready to die.”
Writer David Remnick did a fabulous job—seriously, read the story yourself—and it got me thinking about both Cohen’s body of work and the impact it has had on me over the years.
SInce he’s in the news and everything, it seemed like a good time to write about a few of my favorite Cohen songs. These are just three of a countless number of beautiful songs the man has recorded over the years …
1. The Traitor
Almost all of Cohen’s lyrics are breathtaking—when you are a novelist and poet before even beginning your singing career, I guess that’s to be expected—but the lyrics on “The Traitor” from 1979’s Recent Songs are on a whole other level.
The judges said you missed it by a fraction, Cohen sings. Rise up and brace your troops for the attack/ Ah, the dreamers ride against the men of action/ Oh see the men of action falling back.
Like a lot of great poetry, I’m honestly not exactly sure what’s going on; the song seems to be go back and forth between different scenes, some of them sexual and some of them dangerous. What I do know is that “The Traitor” sparks emotions deep inside me every single time I hear it. It never gets old.
Martha Wainwright delivered a phenomenal version of this song in the Cohen documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. (Check it out below!) In the film, he even briefly discusses what the song is about, though he never gets specific enough that I truly feel like I “get it.” But I don’t need to “get it,” do I? What’s essential is that I feel it.
2. Tower of Song
On 1988’s I’m Your Man, Cohen’s voice is surrounded by drum machines, synthesizers, and other trademarks of 80s record production. He had toyed with those sounds in the past, sure, but I’m Your Man has always stood out to me as the record where everything from that era truly came together. It’s also one of his better albums, featuring such key tracks as “First We Take Manhattan,” “Everybody Knows” and “I’m Your Man.”
For me, thought, album closer “Tower of Song” has always been the biggest highlight. The lyrics are both playful and serious, and the production is much less reliant on synths and reverb than the other songs. It’s a great final song on superb album.
Key lyrics: I was born like this, I had no choice/ I was born with the gift of a golden voice/ And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond/ They tied me to this table right here in the Tower of Song.
3. Show Me the Place
2012’s Old Ideas is perhaps my favorite album of Cohen’s career, and “Show Me the Place”might just be the best song of the bunch. Like much of Old Ideas, it blends his voice with a slow, graceful piano, strings, and gorgeous background vocals.
Show me the place, help me roll away the stone, Cohen sings. Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone/ Show me the place where the word became a man/ Show me the place where the suffering began.
Other great songs from this album include “Going Home,” “Come Healing,” and “Banjo,” but I recommend listening to the entire thing from start to finish.