Believe me, I don’t feel the need to justify myself to you. In regards to the Western musical canon, I’m supremely confident that I know more than you do. In the event of those rare topics of which I am not properly versed, a subtle blend of WikiPedia and my superb writing talent will provide succor, and mask my ignorance before you are the wiser.
That said, I feel I must begin this post with one (perhaps redundant) proviso:
I detest the idea of recommending a Best of or Greatest Hits album. To do so lacks inspiration and insight and amounts to an act of rote inclination suited to your garden-variety connoisseur of The Eagles or James Taylor. The only thing worse than a Best of is the super-superlative Very Best Of, a cheeky moniker reserved for the likes of Poco or Little River Band or – I don’t know – Aerosmith?
I’ll leave aside that these Best Of compilations would normally end their lives on the floor of one’s car, lost underneath the seat, their cultural relevance often fading along with the cover art and liner notes. Best and Greatest, you see, are terms that signify not just a culmination, but an end of sorts, as if these self-important tracks were each designed to terminate at some great zenith: an embarrassment of riches, here collected for your listening pleasure, and for a limited time only.
Likewise, it frustrates me that after finding himself only a few short years into a contract with Columbia Records, that self-same industry stalwart thought it best to bestow upon Leonard Cohen the honor of a greatest hits album. Of course I know it’s not really an honor. Rather it’s a clever marketing tactic, repackaging the hit songs of an artists whose past albums contained some more challenging material not digestible by the mass market.
In a way not too dissimilar from fellow Canadian Justin Bieber, Leonard Cohen had that precocious mix of lyrical maturity and joie d’vivre in a time when the industry needed it least. For consider that at the time of The Best of Leonard Cohen‘s release, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Harry Chapin, John Denver, Paul Simon, Don McClean, Billy Joel, and even James Taylor were at the peak of their own lone troubadour careers.
Which might leave the uninitiated scratching their heads, asking themselves, “ Why Leonard Cohen?” Why this strange, Jewish Canadian man, who sang about NYC as if he owned it; who wrote so poetically in the first person about his ignoble dalliances with men, women, … America. Who potently and selfishly crystallized the sexual revolution of the Sixties and Seventies in his life and work. How did he get to be this kind of melodious, counter-culture James Bond? Did he think he was better than us?
Listen to Suzanne, the first Leonard Cohen song I had ever heard, played for me by a friend with a timid voice, accompanied by his equally timid twelve-string. He and I sat in his basement after school one day, writing songs of our own, whereupon he pulled out a song book of Seventies singer-songwriters. And though I had experienced it in this moment as a cover by a confidence-poor teenager, I nonetheless felt something move within me as I listened. Herein lay the beauty of Leonard Cohen, and of Suzanne: this song was begging to be covered, and could be done so in the most intimate of settings, with the most becoming of outcomes. Witness the way in which Suzanne solidified Judy Collins’ career:
Suzanne will certainly not solidify my career, but it will make me smile and dream of an imagined self, walking unhindered through the deviant streets of Seventies New York, or in gypsy robes, floating polyamorously through hazy forest paths, glistening rivers, and glamorous orgies:
…you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.
Or consider The Partisan, a nod to La Complainte du Partisan, a song of the French Resistance during World War II:
the wind, the wind is blowing,
Through the graves the wind is blowing,
Freedom soon will come;
Then we’ll come from the shadows.
And who amongst us does not still wrestle with the lyrical disquietude of Famous Blue Raincoat, epistolary in tone, somewhat coy in its veiled reference to Scientology, and so brash in its finality:
Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear
— sincerely, l. cohen
Or consider Chelsea Hotel #2, a tune both perverse and provocative, mirroring much of Cohen’s literary work . In his characteristic minimalist fashion, this song alone expresses Cohen’s penchant for doomed love affairs and self-effacement:
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
you were famous, your heart was a legend.
You told me again you preferred handsome men
but for me you would make an exception.
And clenching your fist for the ones like us
who are oppressed by the figures of beauty,
you fixed yourself, you said, “Well never mind,
we are ugly but we have the music.”
Perhaps I’m being sentimental, and I may even end up redacting this statement, but I’d go so far to say that Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye is perhaps the most heartfelt and poetic of Sixties love songs, landing a hearty bitch slap on Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane, and nudging comfortably past The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows:
I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm,
your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm
The influence of each song on this album notwithstanding, one cannot deny the holistic relevance and cultural influence of this Best Of collection proper. For example, though you are urged to ignore the contents, consider the cover of Ween’s 1991 album The Pod.
Though similar to Nick Drake’s Way to Blue, in that Leonard Cohen’s Best of appears to have an importance that supersedes its status as a compilation, I’ll remind you that this post is not simply a review. Rather this post memorializes this album’s auspicious entry on a very specific list: The Five Records I Recommend to the Dying. And when we’re talking about death, we’re talking about so many different emotions: longing, frustration, fear, guilt, regret, transcendence… an assemblage of humanity’s least charming, though most quintessential of features.
So I choose this record not because it makes me looks culturally literate, but because deep in Cohen’s laconic and nasally drone is the faculty to settle the emotions of the dying on billowy clouds of cottony romance and nostalgia, and hold deeply the hands of those drifting, departing souls.
You can listen to The Best of Leonard Cohen like pretty much anytime: it’s stupid famous. For now, you can listen to his coolest tune:
— sincerely, d. schwittek