Lately, you can't throw an Old Testament or a pair of silk panties without hitting a Leonard Cohen song. Earlier this week, it was "Bird on the Wire" at the end of "Sons of Anarchy." Last week, it was five different songs on a two-part "Criminal Minds." In the endlessly charming "Pirate Radio," it's a generous helping of "So Long, Marianne." On "American Idol," it's not if but when someone will sing "Hallelujah." I've heard his songs on "Without a Trace," "House," and "Lie to Me," and his songs are just as likely to be performed on shows I don't watch. From "Shrek" to "Secretary" to "Natural Born Killers," you can find his distinctive brand of sex and spirituality, of nakedness in all its forms, of repetition, juxtaposition, and parallel construction that are by turns too much and not enough. So, in case your collection has some holes in it, here's a list of albums, in the order you should buy them.
The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002)
This is desert-island music: 31 songs spanning 34 years. The hopeless is balanced—or at least ameliorated—by the hopeful, so wrist-slashing can be deferred. Allow these exquisite songs (performed in chronological order) to help you get your bearings. The first time through, the album should be listened to in its entirety, with earphones, while sprawled on the bed, alone. This technique should also be employed by first-time listeners of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and Janis Ian's "Between the Lines."
When I'm listening to "The Essential LC" in the car, I only skip one song ("First We Take Manhattan"), and I don't always skip it. Another song ("Ain't No Cure for Love") is in sore need of a ruthless edit and a new arrangement. I'd suggest that to Leonard, if he and I were sitting together at a sidewalk cafe in Krakow, or Toronto. I'd drink tea. He'd drink room-temperature milk. I'd wear a black skirt, tall boots, and a cashmere scarf I purchased at a second-hand store. He'd talk about a woman, and how they once spent a weekend at a nearby hostel. Her thighs were flawless, and she had a birthmark near the small of her back. The birthmark was the color of nearly ripe plums, and the shape of Krakow, or Toronto.
Also, feel free to spend a couple of hours locked in the bathroom with the album cover.
Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Now, it's time to trace the roots. I bought this record album for two dollars in the early 1970s when it was remaindered in a drugstore bin. I was in high school, and this music was somewhat of a departure from "Rocky Mountain High" and "Sweet Baby James."
"Some girls wander by mistake, into the mess that scalpels make," Leonard sings. There are songs about strangers, and teachers, and masters. Masters! Imagine! I sneaked out of school during mandatory pep rallies, rushed home, and lay face-down on the shag carpet to listen to this album on the console stereo. "Are your lessons done? Are your lessons done? Are your lessons..."
So, I don't recommend it lightly. I haven't been able to face it in decades. The sepia photo on the album cover looks like a passport photo. It was taken "by machine." "Of course it was," I imagine my younger sister saying, as she slips her hand between her legs.
This album contains five songs we haven't yet heard, and all are good. Four of the five will not show up on subsequent albums, and "One of Us Cannot be Wrong" will be addressed soon. Of course, you could listen to this album before "The Essential LC." I'm simply trying to protect you from spending too much time in the fetal position.
Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979 (2001)
This album features live versions of three great songs that—inexplicably—do not appear on "The Essential LC." They are "The Window," "The Smokey Life," and "The Gypsy's Wife." There are live versions of songs we've already heard, and we're introduced to several more good songs.
I've noticed that the live version of a song perfected in the disciplined confines of a studio is not always a treat (a lesson that was driven home at a very disappointing Don McLean concert). But Leonard is an exception: The live versions are sometimes better than the studio versions. The arrangements are interesting; the pace is unhurried. I don't know how he elicits the necessary discipline from the musicians and singers. Maybe he threatens to stop sleeping with them.
The album cover features another black-and-white photo of Leonard. On the album mentioned above, he looks a little wounded. On this album, he looks like he'll be the one doing the wounding, thank you very much.
Recent Songs (1979)
What a pleasure to listen to this album! We know one song from "The Essential LC" and three from "Field Commander Cohen." Five more good songs are included here, and nowhere else. All are beautiful, all are brilliant, but my favorite is "Ballad of the Absent Mare." This song, perhaps more than any other, reminds us that Leonard is a poet, unsurpassed in this century or the last. The themes pile up, one on top of the other, each more intimate and enduring than the one before, until I can hardly draw breath.
It seems to me that Leonard's abiding popularity stems from his willingness to look at a situation long past the point when others look away. He keeps watching, he keeps writing, while others avert their eyes in an attempt to avoid pain and shame. Usually, his gaze is turned inward, and he shares what he sees, without making it pretty, without making it easy. He offers no excuses. "Here's to the few who forgive what you do, and the fewer who don't even care," he writes (but not on this album).
I frequently skip "The Lost Canadian," which he sings in French. One might suppose that would be enough of a draw, but it is not.
Cohen Live (1994)
Let's enjoy one more live album. It includes an orchestral version of "One of Us Cannot be Wrong" that should not be missed. The barely-in-check emotions, the wretched humility, the truly impressive rhyme scheme...this song is perfect. The 1967 version no doubt tore you apart, and now you can suffer along with this larger version. The album includes many songs we've already heard (including additional verses of "Hallelujah"), and we're introduced to a couple more good songs.
Songs from a Room (1969)
Now that we're feeling more emotionally robust, we can revisit the 1960s, and another heartbreaking album. Don't be fooled by the cheery melody of "Tonight will be Fine." It's tragic. Not in a French-resistance-fighter way like "The Partisan," but in a more typical way, as a lover anticipates things ending poorly. Again.
More than half of the remaining songs on this album are excellent. There's some fairly grim subject matter (suicide, abortion, ritualized abuse), but I always smile as I sing along with "Lady Midnight."
Songs of Love and Hate (1970)
This is your only chance to hear "Love Calls You by Your Name," which is lovely. The songs on this album (those that we haven't already heard) are mostly good. And it's the only cover photo in which Leonard is smiling.
The Future (1992)
My younger sister gave me this album several years ago, and it served to reignite my love affair with Leonard. I listened to it dozens of times before calling her and declaring it the perfect album. It has social commentary, old-time religion, and senior citizens getting some action. In my opinion, it also offers the sexiest song ever written, "Light as the Breeze" (which manages to be even sexier when performed by Billy Joel). Most of the songs, though, are on "The Essential LC." Those that did not make the cut are not up to Leonard's usual standards. So, the only reason to buy this album is to hear "Light as the Breeze." Do it. Also, buy "Tower of Song," for Billy Joel's cover, along with several other topnotch covers.
Dear Heather (2004)
This is Leonard's last studio album. (He has released three live albums since, but I don't have them.) It would be a mistake to let this album serve as an introduction to Leonard, because it is not representative of his body of work. In fact, the song "Dear Heather" is baffling. I don't know if Leonard is outsmarting us, testing us, or messing with us; I do know that I always skip this song. However, there are other songs that make this much-maligned album worth owning. I love "The Letters" and "The Faith," among others. There's a heartfelt song about the attacks of 9/11, and there's a song about a woman and her small child "...caught in the grip of an undertow." So...enjoy!
This album reminds us that Leonard adores women, and that they adore him in return. I think he adores women. He seems to. I saw him on film once, alluding to the possibility that it's all just a con (but maybe that was the con). We're all con men to some degree, willing to manipulate others to get what we want. Leonard admits it, though, which makes women trust him. Which sounds a bit like the premise of a "Criminal Minds" episode...
Ten New Songs (with Sharon Robinson) (2001)
We've heard the best songs from this album (pay attention to "Alexandra Leaving"). The other songs are romantic, and seem to encourage slow dancing. I'm glad these kids collaborated.
New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)
We've heard several of these songs, and the rest are good, with an occasional glimpse of greatness. He's so young here. He seems...undefended. Here, and elsewhere, he invites us to watch him suffer (he demands that we watch). I bought this record album when I was seventeen, listened to it once, and decided I hated it. I didn't throw it away, because I liked the name of the album, and the scandalous cover art. But I refused to listen to it a second time, until I was in my forties.
(I've been listening to this album more since I wrote about it, and I've fallen quite in love with it. I can't get enough of the nearly overwrought "Leaving Green Sleeves." Whenever I listen to it in the car, I think "That's a little weird," and then I hit Repeat and listen to it until the car pulls into the driveway. He's so naked in the song.)
The Best of (1975)
This is an excellent compilation, but you have all of these songs if you've been following the recommended order (up to and including "Songs of Love and Hate").
I'm Your Man (1988)
This is also a very good album, and another decidedly sexy song. Almost all of these songs, though, are on "The Essential LC," and the remaining two are forgettable.
Various Positions (1984)
We've heard the best songs from this album. There are a few we haven't heard, and they're fine, but not...essential.
Live Songs (1973)
We've heard the good songs from this album. Enjoy the album cover, though, and the somewhat menacing photo. In earlier and later photos, he appears earnest. Here, he looks a bit ruthless, like the "thin gypsy thief" he mentions in an earlier album.
More Best Of (1997)
Again, we've heard the good songs from this album.
Death of a Ladies' Man (1977)
This unfortunate album was produced by Phil Spector, who is currently serving a prison sentence of 19 years to life (for unrelated crimes). The only good song is "Memories," and it's much better on "Field Commander Cohen" than it is here.
Buying and listening in this order will ensure that you don't miss any really great songs, or any exceptional arrangements. Of course, there's nothing wrong with buying all the albums (minus the then-unnecessary Greatest Hits albums) and listening in chronological order. That sounds like a fun (if long) day.
And there's nothing wrong with taking a more haphazard approach to loving Leonard. I'd like to study him in college, the way one might study Jane Austen or Marcel Proust, graduating with no discernible skills. But I realize that others are content to hear "Suzanne" on the radio occasionally, or "Anthem."
There's a film in which we watch a young Leonard order room service in French, wearing somewhat-ratty skivvies and T-shirt. When the grilled cheese sandwich and glass of milk arrive, he eats standing up. One can imagine (well, I can imagine) that he's thinking about what to do next, that he's weighing his options, both sacred and profane. And as quickly as those lines are fixed, they are blurred. And those blurred lines fuel a career that spans 43 years and counting.
So, go buy some music. Preferably before we're subjected to "Famous Blue Raincoat" as performed by the cast of "Glee."