Origin: Montréal, Québec
For four decades, Leonard Cohen has been one of the most important and influential songwriters of our time, a figure whose body of work achieves greater depths of mystery and meaning as time goes on. His songs have set a virtually unmatched standard in their seriousness and range. Sex, spirituality, religion, power – he has relentlessly examined the largest issues in human lives, always with a full appreciation of how elusive answers can be to the vexing questions he raises. But those questions, and the journey he has traveled in seeking to address them, are the ever-shifting substance of his work, as well as the reasons why his songs never lose their overwhelming emotional force.
2008 was a landmark year for Leonard Cohen and marked a return to the live stage. Cohen travelled across the world, delivering three-hour concerts to sold-out audiences who offered standing ovations to the poet with over 40 years worth of repertoire. His latest offering, the 2 CD and DVD Live In London, beautifully captures the passion and energy Cohen brought to London’s 02 Arena and the love affair he’s had with his fans for over four decades.
His first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), announced him as an undeniable major talent. It includes such songs as “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” all now longstanding classics. If Cohen had never recorded another album, his daunting reputation would have been assured by this one alone.
However, the two extraordinary albums that followed, Songs From a Room (1969), which includes his classic song, “Bird on the Wire,” and Songs of Love and Hate (1971), provided whatever proof anyone may have required that that the greatness of his debut was not a fluke. (All three albums are reissued in April, 2007.)
Part of the reason why Cohen’s early work revealed such a high degree of achievement is that he was an accomplished literary figure before he ever began to record. His collections of poetry, including Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) and Flowers for Hitler (1964), and his novels, including The Favourite Game (1963) Beautiful Losers (1966), had already brought him considerable recognition. His dual careers in music and literature have continued feeding each other over the decades – his songs revealing a literary quality rare in the world of popular music, and his poetry and prose informed by a rich musicality.
One of the most revered figures of the singer-songwriter movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Cohen soon developed a desire to move beyond the folk trappings of that genre. By temperament and approach, he had always been closer to the European art song – he once termed his work the “European blues.” Add to that a fondness for country music; an ear for R&B-styled female background vocals; a sly appreciation for cabaret jazz, and a regard for rhythm not often encountered in singer-songwriters, and the extent of Cohen’s musical palette becomes clear. Each of Cohen’s albums reflects not simply the issues that are on his mind as a writer, but the sonic landscape he wishes to explore as well. The through-lines in his work, his voice and lyrics, are as distinctive as any in the world of music.
Cohen’s 1974 album, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, found him making bolder use of orchestration, a contrast to the more stripped-down sound he hard earlier preferred. This was followed by Death of a Ladies’ Man, his 1977 collaboration with Phil Spector, and constitutes his most extreme experiment.
Recent Songs (1979) and Various Positions (1984) returned Cohen to more recognizable sonic terrain, though the latter album, in a perhaps misguided nod to the trend at the time of its release, prominently incorporated synthesizers. Though not initially released in the U.S., Various Positions includes “Hallelujah,” which has since become one of Cohen’s best-known, best-loved songs and has been covered by over 150 artists including Jeff Buckley, Willie Nelson and Bono.
As the Eighties and their garishness began to wane, Cohen’s star began to rise once again. The listeners that had grown up with him had reached an age at which they wanted to re-examine the music of their past, and a new generation of artists and fans discovered him, attracted by the dignity, ambition and sheer quality of his songs.
Cohen rose to the opportunity this audience represented by releasing two consecutive albums, I’m Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992), that not only rank among the finest of his career, but that perfectly capture the texture of particularly complicated times. Cohen had long documented the high rate of casualties in the love wars, so the profound anxieties generated by the AIDS crisis were no news to him. Songs like “Ain’t No Cure for Love,” the wryly titled “I’m Your Man” and, most explicitly, “Everybody Knows” (“Everybody knows that the Plague is coming/Everybody knows that it’s moving fast/Everybody knows that the naked man and woman – just a shining artifact of the past”) depict Cohen surveying the contemporary erotic battleground and reporting on it with characteristic perspective, insight and wisdom.
Similarly, in the title track of The Future, Cohen ironically describes himself as “the little Jew who wrote the Bible,” and his immersion in Jewish culture, obsession with Christian imagery, and deep commitment to Buddhist detachment rendered him an ideal commentator on the approaching millennium and the apocalyptic fears it generated. Along with the album’s title track, “Closing Time,” “Anthem” and “Democracy” limned a cultural landscape rippling with dread, but yearning for hope. “There is a crack in everything,” Cohen sings in “Anthem,” “That’s how the light gets in.” Our human imperfections, he seems to be saying, are finally what will bring us whatever transcendence we can attain.
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Since that time, Cohen has released the albums Ten New Songs (2001) which includes the songs “Boogie Nights” and “In My Secret Life”, and Dear Heather (2004), as well as Blue Alert (2006), a collaboration on which Cohen produced and co-wrote songs with his former background singer Anjani Thomas, who provides the vocals. All three albums have only solidified his place in the pantheon of contemporary songwriters.
Collectively, Cohen has published 12 books the most recent 2006's Book of Longing, a collection of poetry, prose and drawings. Book of Longing reached #1 on the Top 10 Hardcover Fiction Books in Canada, as compiled by Maclean’s Magazine, being the first book of poetry ever to reach the top of the bestsellers’ lists in Canada.
Leonard Cohen has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1991, Cohen was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 2003, a Companion to the Order of Canada - the latter of which is Canada's highest civilian honor recognizing a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation. In June 2008, he was made a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec.
Last year “Hallelujah” became a record-setting UK chart phenomenon when a version performed by Alexandra Burke, winner of the massively popular television talent competition “X Factor,” rocketed to the #1 slot on the UK singles chart, becoming the fastest-selling single by a female artist in UK chart history. So much interest in the song was generated that Jeff Buckley’s rendition bulleted to #2 while Cohen’s original version entered the singles chart at #34, bringing the artist his first-ever British Top 40 single. With versions of the song holding down three Top 40 UK Singles Chart positions simultaneously, “Hallelujah” became the fastest-selling digital single in European history. RIAA, CRIA, ARIA and IFPI statistics alone show that, prior to late 2008, more than five million copies of “Hallelujah” sold in CD format.
His songs have been covered throughout the world while influencing generations of songwriters. Cohen's music has earned the accolades of other artists in tribute albums in France, Norway, Canada, Spain, the Czech Republic, South Africa and the United States.
Documentaries, awards, tribute albums and the ongoing march of artists eager to record his songs all acknowledge the peerless contribution Cohen has made to what one of his titles aptly calls “The Tower of Song.”
In 2008 Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and it was also the year that brought him back to the stage, performing in front of audiences in Canada for the first time in 15 years. His 84 date concert tour led him from Halifax to Bucharest, from Dublin to Auckland. The tour sold out around the world winning accolades, critical acclaim and over 80, 5 Star reviews and the energy and awe of this special performance has been captured with the release of the 2 CD and DVD Live In London.
On the eve of the release of Live In London, to the delight of his beloved fans, Cohen will head out on tour across North America, continuing his lyrical journey and enlightening audiences with his challenging and thought provoking poems delivered with charisma and grace. Tour starts April 2nd.