Musical Characteristics of Leonard Cohen

by David Harris

Leonard Cohen (1934- ) is a Canadian singer/songwriter who came to prominence in the late '60s. Revered on the same level as Bob Dylan, Cohen's songs are literate, cerebral, poignant and unique. As of 2011, Cohen is still actively making music and is considered one of the best living songwriters.

First Songs

Cohen released his first album in 1968, "Songs of Leonard Cohen." Already established as a published author and poet, Cohen didn't come to music until he was already in his 30s. Cohen's early songs focused heavily on the lyrics, often accompanied only by spare acoustic guitar. Most of the songs, such as "Suzanne" and "So Long, Marianne," deal with relationships between men and women. However, these are not love songs. Instead, Cohen writes about lust, desire, rage, compassion and betrayal.

1960s and 1970s

Cohen released five albums between 1969 and 1979, producing well-loved songs such as "Bird on a Wire, "Famous Blue Raincoat" and "Chelsea Hotel No. 2," where he chronicles his relationship with Janis Joplin. His songs remained dour and intense, but his ability as a singer increased with each record, although his baritone voice becoming richer on each release. On "Songs of Love and Hate" (1971), Cohen began to add new elements to the spare voice and guitar of his older songs, including strings and children's choruses. His sound took a detour in 1977 when he worked with legendary producer Phil Spector on "Death of a Ladies' Man," a record the singer considered a "failed experiment."

1980s and Beyond

After a record that mined the same singer/songwriter sound that Cohen began with, 1988's "I'm Your Man" was a stunning new direction for the singer. The songs, such as "First We Take Manhattan" and "Everybody Knows," featured the same sort of melodies and lyrical preoccupations of past Cohen work, but were now filled out with synthesizers and drums. In 1992, Cohen would continue working with these lush stylings on "The Future," before retreating to a monastery for a decade.


Relationships between men and women, and religion are two major themes that Cohen explores throughout his body of work. Although some songs dabble in politics, especially the later ones, most of them are tied down with the politics of emotions. Cohen suffered from depression for most of his life and many of his songs touch on depression, as well as suicide. However, despite the heavy pessimism, many of Cohen's songs continue a wry, gallows humor that humanizes songs and makes them intensely unique.

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