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Grant McDermott

Assistant Professor
Dept. of Economics
University of Oregon

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[NOTE: This post did originally appear on a Thursday (May 12, to be exact), but has since been "moved" following the blogger spaz out over the weekend. Just in case you were wondering. Glad we got that out of the way.]

I'm all kinds of short on time right now, so unfortunately this is going to be an fairly light treatment of a notably complex artist: Leonard Cohen.

His quintessentially understated singer-songwriter style may not be to everyone's taste, but as a musical poet he is all but unmatched. You would find little opposition to the claim that he is among the top two Jewish(-born) lyricists to emerge from the 1960s folk scene \(-\) which, of course, would place him high in the running for the title worldwide and for all of time. The other claimant to the throne being a certain Robert A. Zimmerman. (At least that was the handle his loving parents gave him, but he never had much use it for himself...)

Like Dylan, Cohen has proved an irresistible inspiration for covers. The reasons, I would venture, are fairly straightforward and do not require deep analysis. Hypnotically simple melodies, profoundly beautiful lyrics that are endlessly evocative yet uncomplicated at the same time, and \(-\) most controversially \(-\) a sense that these songs could be improved by a different voice. It's hard to touch on this last aspect without further explanation. I'll try and be blunt: I believe that other artists have felt "comfortable" singing the songs of Dylan and Cohen because they sensed that they had an advantage in the vocal department.

How wrong they were. The litany of wretched attempts to "cover" a Dylan or Cohen song is testament to this hubris. However, even the underlying notion that there was something that needed improving was misguided from the outset. It does not matter, for example, that Dylan was never the vocal equivalent of Donovan, or even Eric Burdon. That wasn't the issue. Rather, it was about crafting songs that played to his own abilities and strengths. More to the point, find me someone that has come close to singing "Ring Them Bells" as perfectly as Bob Dylan's original cut and I'll eat my words. (Sufjan Stevens, for one, had to reduce the song to a strange carnival jingle to even get it out the door.)

But enough about Bob. This is a post about Leonard Cohen and I should say right now that I do not consider them to be anything near equals in terms of vocal ability, let alone tenor. I was just trying to illustrate the point that it's easy to overlook how central Cohen's voice has been to his music. And, yes, how good it is even. A suitably great paragraph by the brilliant George Starostin, discussing Cohen's debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen:
Me, I happen to be more attracted to Cohen for the hypnotizing sound of his voice rather than the deep mesh of symbolism in the actual lyrics, and so for me, Songs is the freshest and henceforth the quintessential Cohen to own. The melodies are, of course, the weakest part: simplistic, almost identical, tune after tune, all of them lightly strummed on an acoustic guitar which the man could never even master on a Bob Dylan level, let alone Nick Drake. But then he never really tried, either; being a visionary, for Cohen, never implied being a musician as well. It didn't imply being a singer, either, although Songs certainly show that any complaints you occasionally hear about the man's voice are grossly overrated. Instead of singing, he goes for what I'd call 'melodic declamation', softly, silkily purring out his words the way a classic European "bard", be he French or Russian, would always do if he accepted the fact that it was a long way from out there to Shalyapin. But those few notes that he does 'sing', in a way, he sings decently, without getting out of tune; he knows his limitations and he doesn't try to jump over them and get whacked by the cross-bar.
Right, so with those notes out of the way, let's get down to it... because there certainly have been some brilliant Cohen covers over the years despite the many pitfalls. To highlight the obvious example, Jeff Buckley's take on "Hallelujah" may be the most achingly beautiful rendition of another artist's creation in the history of modern music. However, I've somewhat less lofty ambitions here. Let's just try and go for something novel that you might not have heard of, okay?

1) This first little find comes via G.R. (Poncey to his mates) on Twitter yesterday.[*] The Lemonheads (featuring Liv Tyler nogal) sink their teeth gently into "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye":



2) Next, an oldie that my dad used to break out every so often... Judy Collins slips into "Suzanne".


[And you thought the first video's "picture" was bad...]

My old man reckons that this is the best version of "Suzanne" out there and, while I personally much prefer the original, I felt that I had to include it here... If for no other reason than the fact that I need to wrap this up now and get back to work! [UPDATE: Some controversy in the comments here, as the old boy claims he always held Nina Simone's cover as the best. Now, this one may actually top the original.]

Anyway, hope you enjoy these two and feel free to add any suggestions of your own...


[*] In fact, I would be lying if that wasn't what prompted today's Leonard Cohen theme in the first place! Well, that, and the fact that another friend, Bloomsboy, had already made Cohen's presence explicit in the first Cover Thursdays post here at The Corral. Quoting the late Stephen Watson: "Whenever an artist chooses to appropriate the work of another, he is obliged to both adapt it and improve it. One example where I think this was achieved is in Leonard Cohen's appropriation of Federico Garcia Lorca's poem Little Viennese Waltz."