Leonard Cohen turns 78 today and we celebrate his legacy by honoring those who have honored him. Our hope is to show the familiar in a new light. His poetry, his voice like a “Siberian coalmine”, and his nihilistic view on the world — all of it is a ruse for finding the beauty in the deepest darkest corners of this world. He isn’t a sadist or a martyr, he’s a man who wrote deeply disturbing and touching poetry, and he’s all ours. Enjoy our ten favorite interpretations of his classics.
From the starting gate, the simple drum pattern and sonic keys faintly playing in the background take this emotional punch of song, chew it up and spit out a lighthearted and strangely upbeat tune. It’s less of a “so long”, and more of “let’s do this!” A young man finding his soapbox, trying to convince the woman he loves that this relationship can work. This is certainly a departure from Cohen’s original version, which is more like a plea for starting over again, many years after love has been lost to time. Through this re-imagination from the background-actor Beck, the percussion of MGMT and the strong vocals of our unrequited lover, standing in the rain holding a boom box, Devendra Banhart, “It’s time that we began, to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.” Cohen’s classic takes on a whole new meaning.
With simple lyrics, this song, in the wrong heads, could easily flounder with cheesiness and empty clichés. Mama Cass plays to her strengths; not only does she fill space with a glorious haze of trumpets and sounds that feel more like the 70s than anything from the 60s (this songs was released in 1968) but she stomps out her moments, especially when she reaches the climax of “You know who I am”. Mama Cass has turned a song that was meant for someone who was shackled down by adoration, into a ballad of presence. You can’t ignore her anymore; she is loud, strong and daring you to second-guess her.
Ian McCulloch isn’t known for his tenderness. In fact, a lot of Echo and The Bunnymen’s finest moments came when he was doing the opposite, when you felt like he was cutting you with his guitar riffs or attacking you with his wounded howls. McCulloch takes Cohen’s most coveted song, a stream of consciousness poem, and recalls it the way an old man might reflect upon a past love. We’re given, “Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water, and he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower,” with such poise, free from anxiety or anger, only tender reflection, it’s hard not to believe he isn’t singing about himself.
K.D. Lang brings us into a place of worship. The organ, a staple in the church, drives this rendition, as she stands back and preaches with humility, uncertainty, and humanity. With compassion, she speaks for us: “I have torn everyone who reached out for me”. But then, out of nowhere, like a good preacher, Lang takes Cohen’s rough and darkened world and explodes it with light; brightening every pew filled with darkness. She shows us the unadulterated hope of a drunk in a midnight choir, singing his heart out, asking for God’s forgiveness in the purest of ways. “I have tried, in my way, ” she sings, “to be free.” We believe her and hope that those who suffer gain their absolution.
Quite possibly the purest of the covers on this list, Evan Dando doesn’t stray too far from Cohen’s original. Instead, he brings a kindhearted and delicate touch, swinging slowly back and forth along the seesaw melody of this classic folk song. This could’ve been used as an embittered break up song, a callous way to get the last word in, but Dando instead uses it to unite what’s left of a damaged love; honoring what was once there. When he gets to the lines, “But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie, your eyes are soft with sorrow,” its absolutely clear he wants to change the subject, and not because he’s bitter, but because of his affection for the girl. The fact that Liv Tyler plays his counterpoint, adding the fine touch compassion and love that is most needed in Cohen’s songs, is just the icing on top of the cake.
Antony’s voice is always unmistakable and always overwhelming. There is a powerful yet graceful force that comes out of Antony, and with the backing of an orchestra, he is thus allowed to soar. Unlike the other covers, Antony takes a rather quiet and sparse ballad, one detailing the sacrifice a person is willing to go for someone they love, and makes it bigger, turning it into a story of triumph. He builds upon each broken fragment of poetry and line by the time he gets to the crescendo, standing proudly: “Let the hills rejoice, Let your mercy spill on all these burning hearts in hell / If it be your will to make us well.” It is a remarkable sight: A fight for survival, a fight for love, a fight that only Antony’s voice and Cohen’s words could achieve.
Leave it to the Pixies to take a bleak self-narration of a man trying to make up for a life of regret by finding the one that got away, and turn it inside out. The shrieking guitars, the California drums, and Frank Black’s booming voice take us on a journey, a road trip of sorts, where we run with purpose. The biggest difference between The Pixies’ version and Cohen’s original is tone. When we get to “I loved you all my life, and that’s how I want to end this,” we don’t pity the guy, were not even sympathetic. In a world of shit, this guy found love once and he’s content to search that out for the rest of his life. It’s hard not to cheer him on.
Cohen’s words are gorgeous and simple in the beautiful and haunting ballad that has been compared to Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”, in which a man is tempted to stop his travels and disappear into the woods forever. Dax Riggs takes us on this journey, inhabiting a man’s struggle not to commit suicide and with his baritone voice, echoing through the live recording.
Cohen’s original version has a removed tone, moving from line to line with such a casual ease, we miss the poetry. Lines like, “We were locked in this kitchen, I took to religion” go unnoticed and it becomes hard for us to see that he is actually combining two separate ideas: one straightforward image, one powerful metaphor, into one single lyric of struggle and transformation. With Dax Riggs, these connections are never glossed over for he is reeling in the power of the words just as much as the melody until the very last lines. When he howls, “I want to cross over, I want to go home” we feel the pain and desperation. Immediately thereafter, he echoes “but she says, go back, go back to the world,'” and we feel that he must turn back, he must keep going, there are miles to go before he sleeps.
Nina Simone gives us a perspective on a song that has been covered and covered until there is nothing left to extract, except Suzanne. Simone gives us Suzanne’s take on this misguided love letter. From the very start, Simone makes her version stand out by riding along a light groove that rattles and shakes, moving us through jungles and oceans, spinning a tale of love that looked it like it would make it, and on all counts should have made it, but didn’t. And for the first time, standing in stark contrast L. Cohen, we understand what it must be like to see this from the woman’s point of view. What it must be like to find a forlorn Jesus, and have to be his savior? Simone spins Cohen’s lover’s dream with cautious optimism and lighthearted hindsight, as if she is now wiser and knows better than to take your hand and lead you to the river — that kind of life, that kind of love, is for a whole new crop of young lovers, touching each other’s perfect bodies with their minds, with a love that’ll last forever…. or so they think.
The sigh from the very beginning is loaded with all the emotional weight that is carried inside most Leonard Cohen songs — torment, anger, resentment, distrust, regret, nostalgia, hope, grace. Buckley knows this and prepares himself accordingly with the heaviest sigh I have ever heard. Buckley’s work has been described as Shakespearean; if so, here we have the infamous soliloquy, “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun,” or in other words, “Your faith was strong but you needed proof, you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew ya…”
Much like the rest of Grace and other unreleased work by Buckley, his strong angelic voice looms as large as it does uplift, and towards the climax of the song he is able to do what Cohen has spent a lifetime creating: songs of poetry that are grounded more in human experience than anything else, lifting the soul, like a good prayer, out of our bodies and into a world of absolute beauty. The only difference is Buckley didn’t need much to do it; a simple guitar riff and a lone voice, and we are gone.