Leonard Cohen was always a songwriter’s songwriter, an artist whose exquisite body of work will continue to shape countless musicians long after his passing. In this sense, Nick Cave’s response to the singer’s recent death was telling: “For many of us, Leonard Cohen was the greatest songwriter of them all. Utterly unique and impossible to imitate no matter how hard we tried. He will be deeply missed by so many.”
Cave is right. While it’s possible to hear echoes of Cohen in other musicians—Cave happens to be a notable example himself—no one will ever assume Cohen’s mantle. His music came from a place that was too intimate and too personal to belong to anyone else.
Nowadays, many people know the man because of the polished covers of his songs by singers with gentler voices. Not long ago, I was at a songwriter’s night where a young man climbed behind the piano and announced that he was going to play “Hallelujah” by Rufus Wainwright. “Is that right? It is by him, right?” he asked. When no response was forthcoming from the audience, I yelled out “Leonard Cohen!” in a tone that I hoped was informative rather than belligerent. Most people, however, will probably associate “Hallelujah” with Jeff Buckley’s angelic rendition.
Cohen’s own voice, however, was not angelic. A sonorous croon that thinned out to a whispered purr on his final album, his was a voice that many patronizingly describe as an “acquired taste.” The description is understandable but wrong. Like all artists whose distinct voices form an indelible part of their music—think Bob Dylan or Tom Waits—the undeniable power and conviction of Cohen’s music was partly conveyed in his ragged delivery. Listen to a song like “Last Year’s Man” and imagine what would happen to its meaning if it were sung by someone with a pristine voice, and you’ll have a good idea of why Cohen’s vocals were not an expendable feature of his music.
With its somber mix of confession and spiritual yearning, the arrival of Leonard Cohen’s latest album, You Want It Darker, left many of us more anxious than grateful. Still wary from David Bowie’s portentous Blackstar, it seemed difficult to ignore the sense that Cohen, like his late flamboyant contemporary, was bidding the world farewell. Even so, when headlines began announcing Cohen’s passing, many of us were shocked. Maybe we were just tired of bad news. Maybe we were just sad to see another great musician go. Or, maybe we recognized that we had just lost a voice we need to hear in these troubled times.
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