Leonard Cohen – The Essential Leonard Cohen

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I think I first came across Leonard Cohen via the cover of “Everybody Knows” prominently featured in Pump Up the Volume. And then Ian McCulloch’s cover of “Lover Lover Lover.” And while I knew of Cohen thereafter, it took me a while to start exploring. At some point, I owned several of his studio albums; I found them a bit overwhelming, though, so I pared back to this compilation. I shouldn’t listen to too much Leonard Cohen. I was once at a dinner and another guest – not musically knowledgeable – had recently heard “Hallelujah” for the first time (as hard to believe as that was, given the year and her age) and thought it was Neil Diamond. I have to admit their voices are not dissimilar; I try not to think about it. The I’m Your Fan tribute album is worth checking out. Cohen died in 2016.

What I Think of This Album

So . . . if you’re consumed by self-loathing and suicidal ideation, maybe listening to Leonard Cohen on repeat is not the best idea. Hmmmm. Cohen’s fame revolves around his lyrics, as befits someone who was a published poet prior to beginning a music career at the age of 33. But no one should ignore the often beguiling melodies that Cohen came up with, nor the importance of the arrangements and production touches that someone (as usual, there are no helpful liner notes here) came up with.

But yes, it is the lyrics. Sometimes, it’s a matter of detail – the “tea and oranges/ That come all the way from China” in “Suzanne.” It could be the simple (but not simple) poetry of “Sisters of Mercy” or the hard-won wisdom that permeates “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” The specific sharp phrase that lodges in your brain is a feature, too:  “You find he did not leave you very much / Not even laughter” (“The Stranger Song”) or “We are ugly but we have the music” (“Chelsea Hotel #2”). You can’t overlook the humor:  “You told me, again / You preferred handsome men / But for me you would make an exception” (“Chelsea Hotel #2”). Sometimes, it’s the emotion and pathos:  “I need you / I don’t need you / I need you / I don’t need you” from “Chelsea Hotel #2” and all of “Bird On the Wire.” The bleakness of “Everybody Knows,” the confusing bitterness of “Famous Blue Raincoat,” the abasement of “I’m Your Man,” the fatalism of “Who By Fire,” and the desperation of “Take This Longing” are powerful and all-consuming. Oh, and don’t forget “Hallelujah.”

The first disc of this collection is made up of songs from Cohen’s first seven albums (except there is nothing from Death of a Ladies’ Man). The second disc also takes from I’m Your Man (creating a weird bridge with the first disc), adds a live track, and then delves into the next two albums. The first disc is where I spend most of my time, but there is plenty to enjoy on the second disc, though I frankly find the second disc to be more about craft than art.

Now for the trivia. Suzanne Priddy, a singer-songwriter and actor, sang the backing vocals that are so critical to “So Long, Marianne” (as well as “Suzanne” and “Hey . . . Goodbye”); she is the mother of actor Christina Applegate. David Lindley (Warren Zevon, the Church) plays a bunch of instruments on the first five songs. Horrible human being Charlie Daniels played bass, fiddle, and/or guitar on several tracks (including “Bird On the Wire” and “The Partisan”) and these Daniels-besmirched songs were also produced by Bob Johnston (Dylan, Johnny Cash, Simon & Garfunkel). Jennifer Warnes sings on “Hallelujah.” Sneaky Pete Kleinow (Flying Burrito Brothers) is probably on the I’m Your Man songs. “Chelsea Hotel” is about Janis Joplin, while “Longing” is about Nico. The Smiths’ debut single, “Hand In Glove” very likely borrowed a lyric (“everything depends on how near you [stand] to me”) from “Take This Longing.” I think the melody of the Mendoza Line’s “The Lethal Temptress” sounds a lot like “Chelsea Hotel #2.”

The Best Thing About This Album

I mean, obviously the lyrics.

Release Date

October, 2002

The Cover Art

The first thing I need to say is that Dustin Hoffman was the easy choice to have played Cohen, several decades ago. This is a pretty standard record company cover. I like the black and white photography and the blue text.

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