My Top 10 – Leonard Cohen Cover Versions

My Sunday night ritual of planning what I hope to do each week almost always involves listening to Leonard Cohen. My father listened to Cohen’s “Best of” album on Sunday nights when he did a similar week-planning exercise. I’m comforted that I have converged on a similar ritual.

But in recent years I have become a keen follower of Leonard Cohen cover versions. And so, today, I feel compelled to share with you ten of my favourites. The list, and the order have an element of arbitrariness. It is impossible in ten covers to do justice to Cohen or the ways he is revered by so many great musicians. But it’s worth a try.

10. Take this Waltz

I adore this song. The covers are a little thin on the ground, but this Norwegian one from Ebba Forsberg captures the poignance, and the underlying waltz. You’re still better off checking out Lenny and his band, plus the sublime Webb sisters, though.

9. Chelsea Hotel #2 (Rufus Wainwright)

The original was never a favourite of mine until I learned that Janis Joplin was the subject. Wainwright’s vocal is one of the few that I think surpasses the master.

8. The Story of Isaac (Suzanne Vega)

This is one of only two standout cover versions from the rather lacklustre “Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen”. Cohen’s biblical allusions and spirituality seem to me – an atheist usually uninterested in that sort of imagery – compelling and hard-won. His line “You, who build these altsrs then, to sacrifice these children. You must not do it anymore.”

7. Everybody knows (Concrete Blonde)

Don Henley also had a great version. But I love the rock ‘n’ roll feel of this version.

6. Hallelujah (Jeff Buckley)

This would have been higher up the list, but for the 756,000 attempts on every Simon Cowell reality television show to imitate it, plus the efforts of every lesser artist, from K.D. Lang on down to the bottom of the barrel. Cohen’s lyric changes from version to version – there are too many verses to sing at any one time. But I believe it is structured as an orgasm. And nobody captures this as well as the sighing, tragic Buckley.

5. The Partisan (Joan Baez)

A bit warbly. But Joan Baez simply has the cred to do this however the fuck she likes. Though her cover of Dylan’s “Don’t think Twice, It’s alright” is even better.

4. If it be your will (The Webb Sisters)

This is a bit of a cheat, as it is introduced by Lenny, and it’s part of his regular show on his world tour. But the Webb Sisters are so sublime, with Hattie on Harp and Charlie on guitar, that I could never resist.

3. First we take Manhattan (R.E.M.)

If there is a lyricist of my generation that deserves to be mentioned in the same blog post as Cohen, it is Michael Stipe, front man of my all-time favourite band, R.E.M. I first encountered this song when the College radio station I did the breakfast shift on in 1991 got hold of a copy of “I’m your Fan”. I’ve since come to love the song, and the manic, unhinged protagonist. And anyone who has worked for government or a University will know about being sentenced “to 20 years of boredom for trying to change the system from within”.

I love many cover versions too, including Joe Cocker’s. But R.E.M. makes this special.

You loved me as a loser / but now youre worried that I just might win / you know the way to stop me / but you don’t have the discipline.


2. Coming back to you (Trisha Yearwood)

Not one of my favourite Cohen songs until I heard Yearwood. She’s usually a couple a hundred miles too country for my tastes. But the pain and poignance with which she captures the desperate attempt to salvage dignity while coming back deserves a lot of listening.

“Even in your arms, I know, I’ll never get it right. Even when you bend to give me comfort in the night. I’ve got to have your word on this, or none of it is true. And all I’ve said was just instead of coming back to you.”

1. Famous Blue Raincoat

It doesn’t matter which of the great covers I chose, this had to be #1. It is my favourite Cohen song.

The only other song in the frame is  Take this Waltz and the covers for that aren’t of the same quality. I like Jennifer Warnes’ and Joan Baez’s versions of Raincoat.

Christina Rosenvinge’s “Impermeable Azul” is a delicious runner-up…..

… to Tori Amos’ version. Her delicate touch perfectly captures the benign sexual tension in the implied menage-a-trois.


I’d love to know more about your favourite covers. Here or on Twitter (@Brooks_Rob)

Can monogamy undermine intelligence?


At least over 100 generations in Drosophila melanogaster vinegar flies.

“Male cognitive performance declines in the absence of sexual selection” proclaim Brian Hollis and Tadeusz Kawecki in the title of a paper out this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

It’s the kind of experiment I love to see done – in somebody else’s lab. Set up some populations (lines) of a fast-breeding animal. Let some lines compete for mates but impose strict life-long monogamy on the other lines. Repeat. Then, a couple of years down the line, if all goes well, measure various traits you predict will be affected by the presence (competition) or absence (monogamy) of sexual selection.

Normally, monogamous lines end up more productive. When there is no advantage to males of jostling for dominance over one another or competing frantically for female attention, the fittest males are usually those that stay alive and don’t harm the females. But in lines where males have to compete with one another, females often end up collateral damage of the robust competition between males and even the chemical warfare between their ejaculates.

But this particular paper looked at male smarts.

Put a male vinegar fly into a vial with one receptive and a few non-receptive females, and he will court them all. How quickly he realises which female he should be courting can be used as a measure of his mating savvy.

No surprises that this measure of smarts declined after 100 generations of enforced monogamy. Each monogamous line male comes from a long line of male flies who never had to decide which female to court.

But it turns out that males from monogamous lines were also much slower to learn to associate a particular smell with the likelihood of their vial being shaken (a nasty thing for a fly to endure). So, it seems there’s some kind of general decline in cognitive performance in those lines where monogamy has been enforced for 100 generations.

Sexual selection for smarts

It’s a pretty neat finding from a purely genetic and evolutionary point of view. That removing the normally hectic competition among males (by enforcing monogamy) to find, court and sometimes coerce female flies leads to the whithering of cognitive performance reveals the role of sexual competition and mate choice in the evolution of cognitive capacity.

Of course the Drosophila study says very little directly about human intelligence. It’s value – apart from the discipline-specific genetic issues it addresses – is the clean experimental evidence it provides that sexual selection can favour the evolution of cognitive performance.

But this evidence cannot help but stir human curiosity. To what extent do we owe our much-celebrated human intelligence to sexual selection?

In The Mating Mind, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller made the intriguing case that we owe much of human intelligence to the never-ending competition to out-compete our rivals in love and to find, court, keep and even manipulate potential mates. In the past decade or so, support for Miller’s hypothesis has accumulated from a variety of sources.

Does this mean we’re getting dumber?

Ever since Darwin gave us a viable process – natural selection – by which evolution occurs, some thinkers have fretted about whether people are getting dumber. In 2012 I wrote about one such argument in which Stanford geneticist Gerald R. Crabtree lamented that humanity is “almost certainly” losing its superior intellectual and emotional capacities.

Such worries seem to come from a misplaced nostalgia about the purifying nature of natural selection in the past. The idea that back-in-the-day, those of below average intelligence fell victim to lions, wolves or starvation. But modern human institutions, by mollycoddling the intellectually weak, are somehow undermining our collective genetic intelligence.

It’s the kind of argument one might expect to find in a 21st Century tabloid lamenting the rise of the welfare state. But it’s not too far from Plato either.

Coming from exactly this position, Herbert Spencer mangled Darwin’s idea of natural selection into the pithy but hopelessly wrong notion of “survival of the fittest”. When Spencer co-opted natural selection to substantiate laissez-faire capitalism and oppose the “poor laws”, he diminished evolutionary thinking in a way that it has never quite shaken.

Likewise, Francis Galton drew on the work of his cousin – Charles Darwin – to argue that governments protecting the weak and infirm thwart natural selection’s role in improving humanity. In so doing he gave us several important statistical concepts, including correlation, regression to the mean. And he extended it to suggestions for action that initiated modern eugenics, another shameful perversion of evolutionary thinking.

The idea that human intelligence is on a slippery evolutionary slope lubricated by the protections societies provide to their less fortunate or well-endowed citizens has always been a dangerous one. But while Spencerian survival of the fittest doesn’t hold as much cachet as it once did, I am still often asked by well-meaning readers whether an apparent decoupling between intelligence and reproduction is leading us up the evolutionary garden path.

The questioners seem propelled by the same intuition that had people giggling at the band Harvey Danger’s 1997 observation that “only stupid people are breeding”. It’s an impulse that fuels much of the prurient interest in and sneering about shows like Maury or Jersey Shore.

Harvey Danger’s Flagpole Sitta. Relevance? 0:57.

It would be impossible to replicate the Drosophila experiment in humans. Randomly assigning individuals to life-long total monogamy for generation after generation is a fate, once you think of it, far worse than it even sounds. Hopefully the mistakes governments made with eugenics have taken half-baked social engineering programs of this nature off the table.

Modern civilisation has – thank goodness – eliminated many of the ghastly ways in which our ancestors could die. And that has dampened natural selection on survival. But sexual selection is always happening. And much of sexual selection’s power comes from the fact that humans aren’t life-long exclusive monogamists.

People compete for status and wealth with which to attract mates, they do the most outlandish things to get noticed and they engage in the most elaborate forms of persuasion to court and seduce their mates. Either to find somebody to settle down with, or to find another, or another. These are all expressions of intelligence, and while smarts don’t always win out, they usually help.

In fact, Mark Roeder, in his new book Unnatural Selection: Why the Geeks Will Inherit the Earth, argues that the anthropocene has seen intelligence eclipse strength vigour as determinants of success. If that is the case, then sexual selection may well ensure that 100 generations – say 2,500 years – from now, humans will have evolved to be much, much smarter than they are today.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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