Illustration by Rachel Gordon.
Last year has been labeled as the year of death. To start off 2017 with a more positive note to encourage a time of celebration, I want to look at three artists whose departures greatly affected the music industry. This is not a competition, as many other celebrities, including musicians, were extremely important to millions of people around the world. Instead, these three particular musicians were recording music up until their final moments of life and whose final projects were an integral part of their complete discography and mythos. The three musicians to be featured are Leonard Cohen, Prince and David Bowie: Key musical figures of Canada, America and the United Kingdom. I hope to open 2017 with these tributes to three of the greatest contemporary artists whose songs entered new worlds, lyrics crafted engaging stories and melodies stayed with us our whole lives.
Leonard Cohen was a special song writer master that came at the right time. Bob Dylan sang with his brain, but Cohen rivalled his complexities through heart. When Dylan wove stories of made up characters, Cohen was extremely literal. He wrote metaphysical lyrics that referenced himself, the song and even the album; even the album titles were very blatant as to what they aimed to achieve. While it is true that Hallelujah was his most recognizable song, I was most attracted to his earliest work that was steeped in dim lights and the noises within the cabin that surrounded him. His husky voice— very Lee Hazlewood in nature— sunk deeply into my soul. He had an eerie tone to his singing while he sang cautionary tales. The greatest quality Cohen had was was how his songs could be covered not even by other story tellers but in the ways that his songs would transform to become an embodiment of whomever sang them (look at Jeff Buckley).
Born in Quebec, Leonard Cohen definitely represented Canada well as our own form of royalty. He conquered McGill University with his talents in poetry, and he then took over the world with his collections assembled in paperback form. While he was being interviewed to promote his poetry collections on CBC TV, Cohen revealed that he wanted to become a songwriter. At the age of 33, a time where most wandering folk singers already had a canon under their belts, Cohen quietly stepped into the recording industry with the masterpiece Songs of Leonard Cohen. With Suzanne and So Long, Marianne, Cohen was well underway to having a long and strong career.
His most prolific decade was the ’70s, where he would dabble in differently arranged concepts. He branched outside of his common folk roots to explore rock music, and he even worked with Phil Spector (a move that had Cohen returning to his classic sound to combat the negative reception he received). Only two albums were made in the ‘80s, but they included some of his biggest risks and greatest rewards (Hallelujah on Various Positions, and the brilliant synthetic departure I’m Your Man). After 1992’s The Future, we wouldn’t hear from him again until 2001’s Ten New Songs (an understatement): an album with a webcam shot cover and a songstress by the name of Sharon Robinson of whom heavily helped make the album.
An additional album later (Dear Heather), Cohen returned with Old Ideas to recuperate the funds that were stolen from him by his manager. In his old age, he went on to make highly acclaimed albums, and due to his collected nature, no one would suspect a thing otherwise. Fast forward to 2016, where death hoaxes surrounded Leonard Cohen in the middle of the year. The man himself waved off any rumours surrounding his health, despite the fact that his spine has been deteriorating for years (rendering him immobile) and that he was battling cancer. The muse often attached to Cohen’s career, Marianne Ihlen (of whom Cohen dated in the 60’s and wrote music for), passed away in the middle of 2016 from leukaemia. You Want it Darker was released late October, and Cohen had passed away early November at the age of 82; shortly after the woman he was always linked to by adoring fans.
Despite his age, health and financial woes later on in his life, I feel like many of us still didn’t really expect his death to happen this year. Something about him felt invincible and permanent. He always felt like the man at the back of the auditorium who careful watched upon everything and remained hidden, but once he had something to say, it was profound and it resonated with you for life. Leonard Cohen had an immense way with words that I feel highly inadequate detailing his life with my limited lexicon. I will let his albums mainly speak for themselves, where even the “worst” album in his discography is still a wonderful experience, and his best work is beyond description. Here is every album by Leonard Cohen ranked in order, ending in his best release.
- The Future-7/10
Despite being the lowest ranked album on this list, The Future is a solid effort nonetheless. It isn’t as flashy as some of his more branched out albums (Ladies’ Man or I’m Your Man), but there is still some evolution here in his music from the previous albums. There is some very dark lyricism that will only return later in his career, but it is interesting to notice it here as well. The most interesting aspect of The Future is that he ended the song with an instrumental outro, which is a humble note by a master lyricist.
- New Skin for the Old Ceremony-7/10
It is a really interesting way to start “Is This What You Wanted” by sounding typically like Cohen’s previous works, and then shifting into the new sound of the album. New Skin is more based around phantasmic representations of basic narrative cores than the previous albums. There are some larger arrangements, yet the album still feels narrowed down. This album marks the start of Cohen’s deviance from his roots, of which got stronger with time.
- Recent Songs-7/10
Recent Songs, despite the allusion in the album’s title, is actually more of a return to form for Cohen. A little bit of Phil Spector’s previous work on Death of a Ladies’ Man rubbed off on this album’s layering, but otherwise it is a typical folk album in Cohen’s early career signature style. The final line of the album is one hell of a way to end the album (“So I pick out a tune and they move right along, and they’re gone like the smoke, and they’re gone like this song”). Now THAT is iconic Cohen.
- Popular Problems-7/10
Popular Problems has a similar concept to Old Ideas from two years before. This album works as somewhat of a culmination of all of his previous styles. Some genres don’t quite fit well with others on the same album (the country ballads mixed to the pop stuff, for instance), but it’s a celebration of a man’s career I can still get behind. To have an album made like this at the age of 80 is astounding.
- Ten New Songs-7/10
This is a noteworthy album because of how much it questions what a Leonard Cohen album is. His musicality is minimal here, and there is a huge focus on his feature collaborator Sharon Robinson. It’s still quite different stylistically, veering deeper into the synth pop mentalities he had been exploring since the ‘80s. His lyricism is still very much present, and Ten New Songs still rings true as a Cohen release even though he continues to drift further away from his roots.
- Dear Heather-8/10
Dear Heather is a continuation of the sounds on Ten New Songs but with a little bit of growth, and is a successor of many sorts. Sharon Robinson is still heavily present but not overly so, and the pop aspects are scaled down a little bit with Cohen’s songwriting getting brought to the forefront. This was thought to be his last album because he was to disappear for a long time again after this release. Dear Heather would still be a nice signature at the end of his career, and I may be in the minority with preferring this album to Ten New Songs.
- Death of a Ladies’ Man-8/10
I don’t get why the album is so maligned. The Phil Spector production may not always align with Cohen’s lyricism and approach, but it is an absolute triumph when it does. Death of a Ladies’ Man was heavily criticized upon release, and while I do see where the hatred comes from, I do think there are more wins than losses here. Maybe I am a sucker for Phil Spector’s production, but I enjoyed this album. I think this highly overlooked album deserves a chance.
- Various Positions-8/10
Cohen’s change in style and singing tone have created a pivotal moment in is discography with the aptly named album Various Positions. It’s nice to hear a completely new approach that is in control of the songwriter’s hand, even aside from the classic songs present on this album,. Various Positions is new in body, but it still features the same humble candidness Cohen always brings spiritually.
- Old Ideas-8/10
After eight years, Leonard Cohen brought back his classic sounds with Old Ideas. With an even deeper voice, Cohen’s return to his original tone is more than welcome because of the different take he now has on his signature lyricism. He sings not as a story teller, but instead as a wise man with experience. After the hardship of being fleeced of his savings from his tour manager, Old Ideas is a come back full of strength to move on. His inability to retire is devastating, but Cohen dealt with this crisis with complete class.
- Songs From a Room-9/10
This is the second release of Cohen’s, and the last to be featured in the ‘60s. Songs from a Room is very similar to Songs of Leonard Cohen, but, as the title states, this project is far more dreary and sorrowful. The album isn’t as fully realized as its former, perhaps due to the stronger connection between the melodies and the stories on the previous album. However, Songs From a Room is still highly solid; A consistent follow up that would only prelude Songs of Love and Hate just as strongly.
- You Want it Darker-9/10
What a challenging album to listen to, but how stunning it is (even out of context). Cohen gravely sings his swan song beautifully, and every single song emotes the essence of what this man truly was for 82 years. It’s confrontational, saddening but so full of rejoice too. His views on death may be very close to home, yet he faced his future boldly, personally and even somewhat gleefully. A perfect way to complete a cherished career, and a heartfelt farewell to all, You Want it Darker is difficult but triumphant.
- Songs of Love and Hate-10/10
A second answer to his first album. Songs of Love and Hate is far more depressing than the former two albums. Every song here is well rounded musically, and the story telling is top notch. The inclusion of a live track (Sing Another Song, Boys) adds some slight variety to keep this album fresh from start to finish. The last album in the trilogy of folk releases Cohen had at the start of his career, Songs of Love and Hate was a great looking glass at where Cohen could explore from there.
- I’m Your Man-10/10
This changeover has not only made Cohen’s music refreshing, it has given Cohen a whole new identity and life to boot. This is a leap into new territory that feels natural, never feels like a selling-out, and is just so damn good overall. The synth-pop feel explores Cohen’s words in a way that was never conceived before (and was never quite attempted or bettered since). Even though I’m Your Man is far from how Cohen normally sounded, I highly recommend this one. It’s an unexpected release that crushes all expectations.
- Songs of Leonard Cohen-10/10
One of the all time greatest debuts. Cohen’s haunting vocal work resting on top of frantic acoustic guitar strumming just melts so easily. This was Canada’s answer to Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and Lee Hazelwood. You can’t get a better blend than that, and this album proves it. These indeed are Leonard Cohen’s songs, of which built a home for master song writing and soaring musicianship. This is an album that does so much with so little. You can turn off the lights, spin this album and just get absorbed by all of the delicate details. Songs of Leonard Cohen is one of the greatest Canadian releases, and it sparked a wonderful career for many decades.