Image from Kevin Ledo
“I heard there was a secret chord, that David played, and it pleased the Lord, but you don’t really care for music, do you?”
Most people could tell you what this song is. Some people associate it as “that song from Shrek.” Some associate it with a Christmas song, mainly because of Pentatonix’s rendition. Some might believe that it is originally sung by Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright.
The song is called “Hallelujah,” and it is one of the most well-known songs of all time. However, it is a song that was originally sung and written by Leonard Cohen. The name Leonard Cohen might sound familiar, or it may not. While known incredibly well in Canada, Europe, and worldwide, his name is not prominent among younger people in the States.
Leonard Cohen has been making music since the 1960’s and has become one of the most influential modern poets. His work and fame often get compared to Bob Dylan, especially since they both started their musical careers around the same time. He has performed with U2, and his songs have been covered by hundreds of prominent artists (such as Lana Del Ray and Michael Buble) over the decades. He is so well known in Canada, he is the one of the artists that inspired Carly Rae Jepsen to get into music.
Yet it seems that most people my age have never heard of him. This may be because his songs include more lyricism put over instrumentals or because his voice is coarse and rough from many years of drinking and smoking. Maybe it just has to do with how his record label marketed him in the States.
His impact, though, is very clear among my peers, even if they have never heard of him. I have watched several times in group settings where some version of “Hallelujah” will play on someone’s playlist, and each time, nearly everyone in the room will start singing it. These moments are bittersweet for me; it is amazing to see one of his works so well known by nearly every age and generation, yet his name is not always associated with the song that they are singing.
Leonard Cohen passed away in November of 2016 at the age of 82. I remember the exact moment I found out, as it was sudden and unexpected. I remember having my sister telling me over the phone and sitting in my bed listening to his music for the rest of the night. Now just over 3 years since that day, Cohen’s son, Adam Cohen, has produced and released nine new songs from his father. This release of “Thanks for the Dance” was cathartic for me, as it felt like one last “goodbye” from an artist that I deeply resonated with.
With that being said, the question still remains: How does one get into Cohen’s music? With decades of music, where does one start listening? The good thing is that streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify exist and these often have “essential” and “best of” songs for most artists. It might be easier to listen to covers of his music by artists you like before diving into his discography.
If I were showing a peer some of his music, I would start with his earliest songs (such as “Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy”) when his voice was softer and not as rough. His songs have a folksier tone, and the lyrics tend to be more about love, heartbreak, and sadness and not so heavy on politics and religion.
Nonetheless, that does not negate the importance of Cohen’s posthumous album. In fact, they enhance it. The album has a nice culmination of sounds and lyrics that sound like Cohen’s music throughout his entire musical career. “Moving On” has hints of 1980’s Cohen songs and is reminiscent of Cohen’s songs about young love. Other songs such as “Thanks for the Dance” sound more like Cohen’s later music right before his passing.
The final song on the album, “Listen to the Hummingbird,” is an appropriate closing to Cohen’s music because it metaphorically sums up his life and work into a simple poem. There are not a lot of lyrics, but it is a poem he seemed to resonate with, as he would tell it in interviews right before his death.
The album has been praised by critics and seems to resonate with fans that have followed him for years. His music still resonates with the masses, even after his death. His poetry continues to influence listeners, the same way I have seen “Hallelujah” influence people of all ages.