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Songs you need to hear this week: Leonard Cohen edition
By
Judith Lynch

Published

November 15, 2016

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Each week, staff from CBC Music, Radio 2, Radio 3, Sonica and CBC regions across the country collect songs they just can't get out of their heads, and make a case for why you should listen, too. But this week, we have Leonard on our minds.

Let us know via @CBCMusic what catches your ear, or if you have a favourite Leonard Cohen song that you just can't stop playing.


'Hallelujah'

You’ve probably heard this chill-inducing hymn about love gone stale a hundred times over. From its recent rendition on last week’s opening skit of Saturday Night Live (sung by Kate McKinnon in character as Hillary Clinton) to Susan Boyles’ winning performance on Britain’s Got Talent to Shrek, “Hallelujah” still manages to form a lump in people's throats. However, no one could have predicted the major impact this hauntingly obscure ode to sex, love and religion would have on popular culture. Especially the label (Columbia), which refused to release it. Taken from Cohen’s seventh studio album, Various Positions, and recorded at a low point in his career, the song was largely relegated to the bargain basement, until its discovery by young singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, who catapulted the song to fame. And thank goodness it struck a chord! Because, until you’ve been shattered by love, enslaved and ultimately humbled by it, you haven’t truly known it at all. And that’s what Cohen beautifully conveys in this classic masterpiece.

— Alison Copeland (@alisoncopy)


‘Dance Me to the End of Love’

Of course Cohen would sing a love song that is equal parts weary death march and intimate tango. Ominous and evocative, sly and erotic, there's also a sadness here, as if Cohen knows that his love is finite, that there's nowhere for it to go. When love's only certainty is its eventual end, dance, rejoice, live in its brief flame. "We're both of us beneath our love, we're both of us above/ dance me to the end of love."

— Andrea Warner (@_AndreaWarner)


‘Steer Your Way’

It’s impossible to pick a favourite Cohen song. The man and his music took on so many forms over the decades, he quite literally has a song for whatever mood you find yourself in. Given recent events, I can’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia mixed with a newfound sense of grief, which is why “Steer Your Way,” from his last album, is the one I find myself revisiting. It features strings, nylon-string guitar and Alison Krauss and Dana Glover on background vocals, and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with anything from his classic period. “Steer your heart past the truth you believed in yesterday,” he sings, a plea for courage in the face of uncertainty and darkness. “Steer your way through the pain that is far more real than you.” Here’s Cohen, facing down his mortality with poetic stoicism, while also leaving the listener with something to grasp at. Above all else, it’s that selfless commitment to the song — something Cohen adhered to on his first album and his last — that I think I’ll miss most.

— Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@jessekg)


‘Who By Fire’

Few people remember the television program Sunday Night. An attempt by Lorne Michaels to build on his Saturday Night Live success with a musical offering, the program ran for just two seasons and managed to change its name to Night Music along the way. Hosted by David Sanborn and Jools Holland, the show would bring musicians together in unique and interesting combinations. While it didn’t find an audience, its influence is still being felt nearly 30 years later. Leonard Cohen appeared on the program in 1989, paired up with saxophone great Sonny Rollins and the band Was (Not Was). The magic of Sunday Night was that it captured unique and brilliant performances, both musically and visually — every shot in this clip is framed perfectly. And the performance! Cohen, generous as always to his bandmates, makes room for vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson and Rollins takes the song to another place, managing to delicately balance doing his own thing with paying service to the song. How great is this clip? Watch to the end and you’ll see a group of musicians do something you rarely see.

— Julian Tuck


‘First We Take Manhattan’

“First We Take Manhattan” is a supervillain monologue. And it’s a monologue for the most dangerous kind of supervillain: one with a seemingly legitimate grievance. When Cohen’s narrator swears off “trying to change the system from within” at the start of the song, he positions himself not as a Joker-like figure of chaos, but as an antagonist more like X-Men’s Magneto. He sees something wrong with the world and sets out to remake it in his own image.

I don’t love this song purely for its latent nerdiness. I love it because it is a power fantasy playing out in the most overt terms possible. It’s like Cohen gathered up all of humanity’s worst impulses and threw them in a box to expose the kinds of philosophies of which we should be wary. That’s one thing that both songwriting and superhero comics have the capacity to do: make obvious the kinds of ideologies that would normally be covert.

You’re best off checking out the rendition on Live in London, if only to avoid the awful, Miami Vice-style arrangement on the studio version.

— Matthew Parsons (@MJRParsons)


‘So Long, Marianne’

Only Cohen could make his most sing-along ready song a lengthy goodbye to a tremendous love. Written for Marianne Ihlen, whom he met on the Greek Island of Hydra and lived with in Greece, Montreal and New York throughout the 1960s, Cohen sings of a binding love that both suffocates — "Well you know that I love to live with you,/ but you make me forget so very much" — and salves — "For now I need your hidden love/ I'm cold as a new razor blade" — while so publicly disengaging from one of the most important women in his life. In spite of the song’s heartbreaking romantics, the lines are still blurry as to when Cohen's time with Ihlen ended and his time with Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell and many others began. But all these years later, I take comfort in the letter Cohen sent Ihlen just before her death this summer, where he wrote, "Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine." He was a man of great loves and great gestures, and "So Long, Marianne" is one of Cohen's greatest.

— Holly Gordon (@hollygowritely)

More to explore:

The Long Goodbye

The many sides of Leonard Cohen: in his own words

Leonard Cohen, the women he loved, and the women who loved him