I really shouldn’t have to introduce you to Canadian songwriting legend Leonard Cohen or explain the impact of his body of work upon generations of artists. In fact, I downright refuse to do so.
In celebration of his 80th birthday, I thought it fitting to explore the numerous covers of his work out there in the musicsphere, recent and classic. There’s something about a great cover that, to me, embodies true talent: after all, it’s not easy to take someone else’s creation and make it your own.
These ten artists have done just that.
“So Long, Marianne” – Basia Bulat
Part of CBC’s tribute this year to Cohen, Bulat takes a soulful, piano-driven approach to a Cohen classic, demonstrating why she’s one of Canada’s rising stars. Haunting and rich in harmony.
“I’m Your Man” – Nick Cave
The original is a personal fave of mine in Cohen’s repertoire, but Cave’s swinging, swaggering take on this sultry song is a worthy alternative. There’s an extra pompous vibe to Cave’s version that’s fun to behold.
“Bird On A Wire” – Johnny Cash
Another legend in his own right, the late Johnny Cash gave us some stellar covers to treasure long after his death (NIN’s “Hurt”, anyone?). His soft country take on one of Cohen’s more famous tunes allows the songcraft to shine, unadorned.
“Everybody Knows – Concrete Blonde
For the generation that grew up with Reality Bites and Pump Up The Volume (the soundtrack this cover comes from), this is perhaps the most popular Cohen cover aside from the omnipresent conclusion to our round-up. Sinister alt-rock layers over an ominous and painfully true lyrical snapshot of society – my mental counterpart to Tom Waits’ “God’s Away On Business”. (Alternate cover version: Don Henley’s take.)
“Famous Blue Raincoat” – Tori Amos
Tori’s fame was at a high in the mid-90s, when the poignantly personal songwriter contributed this to the Tower of Song compilation, and my God, she knocks this out of the park. Already one of Cohen’s more gut-wrenching compositions, Amos steals your breath with her pained whispers and soaring notes. This live version from the Glory of the 80’s single, recorded in ’98, is also stellar.
“First We Take Manhattan” – R.E.M.
My first Cohen exposure that I distinctly remember is this tale of love and life through a dark lens, so I felt it only fitting to share Michael Stipe’s almost harried take on it. Love the harmonies employed throughout – a strange juxtaposition that creates a false well-being.
“Suzanne” – Scott Helman
Another contribution to the CBC birthday sessions, rising local artist Scott Helman takes on perhaps one of the most covered Cohen tunes in existence. The results: a soulful, blues-laced cry to the proverbial heavens in search of love. Young or old, the message strikes a chord in us all.
“Chelsea Hotel No 2” – Lana Del Rey
I have to confess, I don’t buy into the Del Rey hype train (kind of like I never cared as much for Amy Winehouse as so many did). I love “Video Games” and that’s about it. But this take on a Cohen mainstay is surprising in its raw beauty. Del Rey’s throwback-blues voice doesn’t overshadow the imagery; it gently lifts it up for all to see.
“Sisters of Mercy” – Serena Ryder
Ryder’s been on a steady ascent in the Canadian music scene, buoyed by the success of her latest release, Harmony. Early in her career, she delivered this take on “Sisters”. An almost Irish ballad feel to the accompaniment makes this version refreshing and unique.
“Hallelujah” – Jeff Buckley
I debated the inclusion of this cover, if only because it has been so overplayed to the point of music journalists begging artists to stop covering the original. Considered the definitive cover version, Buckley’s take ultimately belongs here because it has ensured that pretty much anyone with any true love of music knows at least one Cohen song. To me, that makes the world a better place.
Have another favourite Cohen cover? Share it with us below!