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)