When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this year, many applauded the fact that the committee decided to recognize a songwriter as part of the art form. But others rejected the notion altogether, and an even smaller group who criticized the decision argued that Leonard Cohen deserved it more.
On Monday, Cohen died at the age of 82, and the Dylan-Cohen conversation emerged once again. It’s debatable whether or not Cohen would have decided to switch his interests to music without Dylan taking the idioms of folk songs, modern poetry, and pop music to the level of high art. However, it didn’t take long for Leonard to become a herculean force in his chosen path. In 1967, he decided to pursue a career in music after publishing a few poetry collections and novels at age 33. He recorded Songs Of Leonard Cohen, an album that established his voice and would later cement his legacy of verbose songwriting. Cohen’s catalog split the difference between elation and gloom, comprising love songs for starry-eyed and doomed paramours, as well as religious musings that touched on the divine and condemned terrestrial hate. His words and melodies continue to influence generations of musicians, from fellow singer-songwriters to artists in genres like punk, noise, metal, and even flamenco. He also wrote “Hallelujah,” one of the most emotionally arresting songs of the 20th century.
Cohen drew deep inspiration from Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, and took guitar playing more seriously after meeting a flamenco guitarist in his formative years. But his connection with Iberoamerican music runs deep, as evidenced in a few tracks from his 1979 album Recent Songs. The record includes a few mariachi arrangements that elevate the form and Cohen’s songs to another level. In her biography I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, author Sylvie Simmons recounts the story of mariachi’s influence on the record. One day, Cohen and his band ate at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles called El Compadre, where they were recording the album. A mariachi band would occasionally play at the restaurant, and that day was no exception; in a flash, Cohen approached the performers about accompanying them to the studio, although they had no idea who he was. They worked on three songs: a small arrangement in “The Guests,” the final section of “Ballad of The Absent Mare,” and much of “Un Canadien Errant,” his adaptation of a post-Lower Canada Rebellion song from the 1840s. These resulted in some of the most distinctive tracks in his oeuvre.
Cohen’s songs speak to an almost atavistic part of the human experience; his compositions are laced with a spirituality that takes life in his characteristic baritone vocals. He left us a final meditation on mortality in the form of career high You Want It Darker, released only a few weeks before his passing. The album is a testament to one of the most profound and lucid musicians of all time, whose songs will resonate with generations to come.