Let’s get one thing straight about Leonard Cohen. Any fan of his work knows that his reputation for making ‘music to slash your wrists to’ is complete nonsense. Though his music is haunted by mortality, it is also deeply romantic, reverentially spiritual, daringly political, darkly sexy, and often very, very funny. His songs are deeply human, compulsively self-depreciating, and forever yearning for the transcendental.
His death, at the age of 82, makes an impact not just because he’s one of the greatest lyricists in all of popular music, but because of the astonishing intimacy of his music. Like the deaths of Bowie and Prince earlier this year, the loss of Cohen feels personal to his listeners. With his staggering 1967 debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, he established his status as the Bard of the Boudoir. It was as if each song was personally crafted to the individual listener, Cohen’s sensual voice softly murmuring in your ear.
As the years went on, his singing voice developed into a basso profondo whisper, both soothing and authoritative – powerful with the lightest touch. While most ‘powerful’ pop singers belt at the highest ranges of their voice, Cohen found his power in the lowest depth of his vocal range.
He also had one of the most unique career paths in the history of popular music. He started out in his thirties, when he decided there wasn’t enough money to be made as a professional poet, and reached his commercial peak in his mid-seventies. But he recorded songs of immense beauty throughout his career: ‘Suzanne’, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, ‘So Long Marianne’, ‘Tower of Song’, ‘Anthem’, and, of course, the endlessly covered ‘Hallelujah’.
Cohen’s writing bears a deep religious influence, a result of his lifelong practise of Judaism. When performing in Israel, he was known to speak Jewish prayers and bless the audience in Hebrew. He also became fascinated by Buddhism. In the late 1990s, Cohen spent five years secluded at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California, during which he became ordained as a Buddhist monk.