In Memoriam: Leonard Cohen 1934-2016

This month augured two tragedies on the world stage: One, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and two, the passing of legendary singer-songwriter, poet, novelist, overall genius, Leonard Cohen. To commemorate the tragic loss of an iconic artist, it is crucial to celebrate the life and legacy of an artist of such stature.

Cohen’s legacy as an artist is found more poignantly in his musical work, yet he initially began his career as a writer, publishing novels and poetry in his 20’s before the release of his first album. His poetry profoundly explored big ideas of religion and sexuality, with an existentially focused eye. His lyricism, influenced by poets such as W.B. Yeats and Walt Whitman was powerful through its ability to convey tones and moods through allegorical symbolism. For example, one of his most praised songs, “Master Song”: “Your master took you travelling, / Well at least that’s what you said. / And now do you come back to bring / Your prisoner wine and bread.” The religious associations of wine and bread along with the religious connotation of the idea of “master” are part and parcel of what makes Cohen such a reliably brilliant songwriter — allusions and metaphors coming together to paint a powerful portrait of a failing relationship.

In 1967, to moderate popular success, a small-time poet released his debut album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” While Cohen would gain a moderate following from this album, this heralded the arrival of a lyrical genius in a musical marketplace full of talented writers. This was the same generation of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell.  

Cohen placed his songwriting front-and-center by laying his vocals over subdued band arrangements — fingerpicked guitars with keyboards and understated percussion. The result was a distinctly ambient layering perfectly suited for Cohen’s lyrical compositions. The sonic palette which Cohen constructed on this first record was ideal for expressing a poetic idiom and sensibility, and in reality augured his place in the pantheon of singer-songwriters.

Any discussion of Cohen and his work which fails to mention his most famous song, “Hallelujah” would be an absolute failure. By far his most well-known and striking song, this track represented a crucial shift in his soundscape. By replacing the ambient and subdued arrangements of his first album in order to highlight religion, Cohen began with striking choral and harmonic variations on traditional choir music.

The deeper sonic layering marked a larger departure from skeletal nature of his early music, but also conveyed the same brand of religious and secular wonder and inquiry. While his career spanned nearly 40 years, Cohen meticulously crafted beautifully written lyrics that can match the work of any renowned poet. Indeed, Cohen was arguably the preeminent songwriter of our era.

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