12 Underappreciated Leonard Cohen Songs
Leonard Cohen is not a very prolific artist. In a 47-year music career he has made just 13 studio albums, along with a passel of live releases. (Compare that with Bob Dylan’s 35, or Neil Young’s 39 solo records.) But despite the relatively small size of Cohen’s catalog, it still has a lot of underappreciated gems. Here are 12 songs that seem to me to be unjustly overlooked, in honor of Cohen’s 80th year. Happy birthday, Leonard!
1. “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” 1969
I’ve always preferred Cohen’s first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” to his second, “Songs From a Room,” partly because I’ve never been a huge fan of “Bird on a Wire,” the most famous track from the second album. But the 1969 release does have this sad and beautiful tune, one of several Cohen songs to address the subject of suicide. In this performance, from the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, he explains some of the background as well.
2. “Love Calls You By Your Name,” 1971
3. “Sing Another Song, Boys,” 1971
As I wrote in my recent essay on Cohen, I would pick just about every song from his 1971 album “Songs of Love and Hate,” except, in this context, “Famous Blue Raincoat” since it’s already well known. But I’ll restrict myself here to two: “Love Calls You By Your Name,” which, as Cohen explained in a 1974 performance, “searches out the middle place between the beginning and the end of things,” and “Sing Another Song, Boys,” which might be my favorite Cohen song of all time:
4. “Please Don’t Pass Me By,” 1973
The entirety of 1973’s “Live Songs,” released to fulfill Cohen’s commitment to Columbia Records, is something of an underappreciated classic. Among the tracks are a version of the folk standard “Passing Through,” and a closing number called “Queen Victoria” that Cohen recorded by himself in a Tennessee hotel room. But the stand-out here is “Please Don’t Pass My By (A Disgrace),” a 13-minute sing-along with an introduction by Cohen and commentary throughout.
5. “Leaving Green Sleeves,” 1974
One of the stranger recordings of Cohen’s career is the last track of his 1974 album “New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” which, as its title implies, is a variation on the famous 16th-century English folk song. In her 2012 biography of Cohen, “I’m Your Man,” Sylvie Simmons quotes producer John Lissauer who says that the recording was the product of ng ka pay, a Korean liqueur favored by Cohen’s guru, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who was in the studio at the time.
Lisauer had found a place in Chinatown where ng ka pay could be bought, ‘and once in a while we would do a run and pick up a bottle. Hence some of the, shall we say, exotic vocals. On ‘Leaving Green Sleeves,’ we almost had to hold Leonard up to sing; he was ng ka pay’ed out of his mind.’
6. “Memories,” 1977
7. “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On,” 1977
Opinion is split on “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” the 1977 Phil Spector-produced album. According to some fans Spector butchered Cohen’s work, using his wall of sound production technique on an artist whom it didn’t fit, while others view the album retrospectively as a strange but successful experiment. I’m more in the first camp than the second, but in the case of “Memories,” whose lyrics and melody evoke a 1950s high school dance, the style seems appropriate. This is also one of several Cohen songs about the singer Nico, (“the tallest and the blondest girl”) with whom he was obsessed. And “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On,” besides being a rousing tribute to domestic misery, is worth listening to for the fact that Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg are on backup vocals, even though you can’t really tell.
8. “The Gypsy’s Wife,” 1979
9. “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” 1979
Like “Songs of Love and Hate,” 1979’s “Recent Songs” is an album I’m tempted just to pick in its entirety. There are no really famous numbers here — no “Suzanne” or “Hallelujah” — but the whole album is a gorgeous piece of work whose lush instrumentals were produced by some of the same musicians Cohen still plays with today. Picking just a couple, however, I’d go with “The Gypsy’s Wife,” and the final, Buddhist-inspired track, “Ballad of the Absent Mare”
10. “The Captain,” Various Positions, 1984
Here is Cohen at his most sardonic: “Complain, complain that’s all you’ve done, / Ever since we lost / If it’s not the crucifixion / Then it’s the Holocaust.”
11. “Jazz Police,” I’m Your Man, 1988
Actually, “Jazz Police” is probably Cohen’s worst song. But it’s on this list because of the following statement by a Facebook group devoted to the awful tune:
Jazz police is philosophical group which rather than seeking the complete happiness & fulfillment common to the majority of belief systems, believes that everything should be in some way, flawed. That the whole is better than the sum of it’s parts when one of the parts is just a tad askew, or perhaps just not doing it’s job properly. That’s the way we like it.
This philosophy is based solely, and wholly on the fact that Leonard’s Cohen 1985 album ‘I’m your man’ (ranked 51 on Pitchfork Media’s list of the 100 best albums of the 1980s but probably the greatest album ever made – ask your cool friends) contains amongst its incredible selection of songs the absolute stinker that is ‘Jazz Police’. An un-settling electro/rap in which the great bard of hard poses the question ‘am I in trouble with the Jazz police?’. Something I think we can all relate to … but what the jiminy cricket is he going on about? And do we care? Actually we don’t. That the point (possibly). We support his right to drop this rambling euro-mess of a track into his masterpiece of songs and claim this as the sole inspiration for our philosophy on life and all things related (although we don’t offer a life-time guarantee and reserve the right to claim that ‘it’s all been a strange dream’). We thank you.
12. “By the Rivers Dark,” 2001
In my own periodization of Cohen’s work, I think of his 1992 album, “The Future,” as the final crescendo of his middle phase, and his next album, 2001’s “Ten New Songs,” as the first of his late, and current period. So far it’s my favorite late-Cohen album, although his new release, “Popular Problems,” gives it a run for its money. But “Ten New Songs” had the advantage of being co-written by longtime Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson, whose music proved the perfect pairing with Cohen’s ever-deepening voice. Here’s one great track from the album, the biblical and classically Cohenesque “By the Rivers Dark”: