The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

“There Is A Crack In Everything, That’s How The Light Gets In”: An Introduction to Leonard Cohen

Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967)

leonard_cohen_songs_of_leonard_cohenA commercially successful but slow-burning album that established Cohen as a force in the music world, with word spreading by word of mouth, Songs Of Leonard Cohen spent nearly 18 months on the British charts. Constructed from unadorned, hauntingly arranged acoustic numbers that perfectly showcase Cohen’s angst-laden, bittersweet insights on the human condition, it contains many of his best-known early songs. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Essential tracks: ‘Suzanne’, ‘Sisters Of Mercy’, ‘So Long, Marianne’

Songs From A Room (1969)

leonard_cohen_songs_from_a_roomWith an unlikely star on their hands, Columbia wanted Cohen’s follow-up Songs From A Room to be a rival to Bob Dylan. Even more low-key and misanthropic than its predecessor and more focussed on narrative efforts, he speculates on the nature of relationships, both romantic and more complex (‘The Partisan’ examines patriotism, for example). The music is pretty much identically constructed to his debut, with the focus on songcraft and lyricism. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Essential tracks: ‘Bird On A Wire’, ‘The Partisan’

Songs Of Love And Hate (1971)

leonard_cohen_songs_of_love_and_hateThe most emotionally intense collection in Cohen’s vast repertoire, Songs Of Love And Hate serves as the last instalment of a trilogy of musically similar records. Here, the arrangements were more subtle and ornate than before, with Cohen reaching deep into his soul to deliver eight songs of open wounds, as he toes the thin line between feverish devotion and dark hatred. With his deadpan delivery and richly literate lyrics, the songs unfold like stories and poems – hardly surprising, given Cohen’s background. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Essential tracks: ‘Avalanche’, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, ‘Joan Of Arc’

New Skin For The Old Ceremony (1974)

leonard_cohen_new_skin_for_the_old_ceremonyEvolving gradually away from the stark arrangements of his early career, building strings, guitars and percussion to the mix, New Skin For The Old Ceremony is a classic example of a transition album in an artist’s career between one phase and the next. Cohen’s lyrics also tend towards more vivid and abstract imagery than before, with his conceit of love and relationships as a battleground by now familiar. ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’, a tale of a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin, is the pick of the bunch. (7/10) (LISTEN)

Essential track: ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’

Death Of A Ladies’ Man (1977)

leonard_cohen_death_of_a_ladies_manThe only serious blot on his copybook, Death Of A Ladies’ Man made no sense on paper and even less in practice. Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound production, while it worked brilliantly for many artists, was not at all suited to Cohen’s minimalist style and vocal delivery, with the arrangements frequently crowding him out and leaving the listener unfulfilled. Despite the ambitious closing title track making some amends, it was a poor effort that was created in chaos, by all accounts, and didn’t do justice to Cohen’s increasing fondness for jazz. (4/10) (LISTEN)

Recent Songs (1979)

leonard_cohen_recent_songsSeeing Cohen revert back the primarily acoustic style that made him famous, but with hints of Oriental and jazz influences adorning the arrangements, Recent Songs was a return to form of sorts. Lingering upon themes of absence and dislocation, his portrayals of love were evocative and beautiful rather than painful. However, despite a couple of notable highlights like the immersive opener ‘The Guests’, there’s plenty of artistry but very few memorable cuts. (6/10) (LISTEN)

Essential track: ‘The Guests’

Various Positions (1984)

leonard_cohen_various_positionsThe most dramatic sea-change in Cohen’s career, Various Positions not only marked the start of his more modern sound, with synthesised instruments often replacing acoustic ones, but also a different vocal style for him altogether. After five years away and now in his late forties, his voice had deepened by a minor third to a seductive growl. Artistically, this was a winning combination that modern listeners now associate with Cohen’s sound. With a surprising gospel and country bent, Various Positions houses the majestic ‘Hallelujah’. (7/10) (LISTEN)

Essential tracks: ‘Night Comes On’, ‘Hallelujah’

I’m Your Man (1988)

leonard_cohen_im_your_manIf there’s one album to recommend to a newcomer, I’m Your Man is that record. Full of driving and dramatic arrangements of synths and drum machines that dovetail beautifully with Cohen’s cynical, world-weary humanism and sly humour, it is home to many of his most celebrated latter-day songs, like the dystopian future capitalism of ‘First We Take Manhattan’, the morbid resignation of ‘Everybody Knows’, the cleverly sensual ‘I’m Your Man’ and the worshipful closer ‘Tower Of Song’. All the songs have a curiously timeless quality, and it’s the most enduring collection in Cohen’s remarkable career. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Essential tracks: ‘First We Take Manhattan’, ‘Everybody Knows’, ‘I’m Your Man’, ‘Take This Waltz’, ‘Tower Of Song’

The Future (1992)

leonard_cohen_the_futureA commercially successful follow-up to the artistic triumph of I’m Your Man, Cohen’s ninth album is perhaps his darkest record of all. Painting a troubling, vexing image of humanity just as the Cold War had ended and Western democracy reigned supreme, The Future is still prescient nearly 25 years later. Going multi-platinum around the world, it’s an enjoyable manifesto for everything his highly original brand of songwriting stands for. All but one of the tracks are over five minutes in length, and it’s his longest album at just under an hour, but there’s plenty of riches to discover within. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Essential tracks: ‘The Future’, ‘Waiting For The Miracle’, ‘Anthem’

Ten New Songs (2001)

leonard_cohen_ten_new_songsAfter nine years as a virtual recluse, representing the longest gap between any two Leonard Cohen albums, and five of which were spent on a sabbatical with his Zen Master dealing with unhappiness in his personal life, a tenth studio album arrived suddenly and without much fanfare. Replicating the dusky, dappled nocturnes that had paid dividends on his last two records, and steeped in spiritual and religious imagery, Ten New Songs was as reliably dependable as graceful as ever. (7/10) (LISTEN)

Essential tracks: ‘In My Secret Life’, ‘Love Itself’

Dear Heather (2004)

leonard_cohen_dear_heatherDeveloping a batch of ideas that had been knocking around since the late ‘70s and mixing it with some new compositions that borrowed liberally from the likes of Lord Byron and F.R. Scott, Dear Heather is a bit of a tricky one. Much like Recent Songs a quarter of a century before, it displays plenty of technical skill but proceedings don’t really hit top gear throughout, with Cohen’s songwriting occasionally inert and lacking vision. (6/10) (LISTEN)

Essential track: ‘The Letters’

Old Ideas (2012)

leonard_cohen_old_ideasCreatively inspired by the huge world tours he had recently undertaken, Cohen entered the final burst of inspiration in his lengthy career with Old Ideas. Now 78, Cohen’s voice had gotten almost impossibly low and growly, but this gnarled quality suits the preternaturally quiet and stripped-back music brilliantly. Addressing the topic of mortality in an understated, dignified and vivacious way that belied its author’s advancing years, it met with some of the best reviews he had received in a while, and charted highly around the world. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Essential track: ‘Going Home’

Popular Problems (2014)

leonard_cohen_popular_problemsReleased the day before his 80th birthday, Cohen’s creative streak was still hot on Popular Problems, which replicated the formula that had brought him back to prominence with Old Ideas two years before. With particular highlights in the shape of the self-referential ‘Slow’, this was the sound of a man savouring his reputation and surveying his kingdom. Not many curveballs are thrown, no boundaries are pushed back, but it’s the sound of an old master at work. (7/10) (LISTEN)

Essential track: ‘Slow’

You Want It Darker (2016)

leonard_cohen_you_want_it_darkerReleased less than a month before his death in November, it is fitting that You Want It Darker will stand as Leonard Cohen’s last will and testament to the world. Although it was trailed by dark statements that he was “ready to die”, the record’s sharp intelligence and deeply sardonic humour demonstrated an erudite artist as on top of his game as he had been at any point in the previous half-century. The title track, in particular, seemed like a state-of-the-nation address in the year of Donald Trump, with Cohen still intent on pushing himself and dealing with the world as he sees it. A poignant send-off for one of the greatest songwriters of the pop era. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Essential tracks: ‘You Want It Darker’, ‘Treaty’

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