Top 10 Covers of Leonard Cohen Songs
Leonard Cohen wrote and sang for his own voice, which was as soulful as it could be deadpan. His writing style was truly his own and it left room for interpretation. For proof of his great songwriting, one need only note the hundreds of versions of his songs by others over the years. Every genre, it seems, from classical to punk to electronic and country has looked to the Cohen songbook for inspiration. Here are but 10 of the countless interpretations of his songs.
Under various monikers, including Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Palace Songs, Will Oldham has released a vast catalog of engaging sounds. His own style owes a lot to Cohen, and he repays that, in part, via this warm and fuzzy cover of “Winter Lady.” The original version appeared on Cohen’s 1967 debut, while Palace Songs’ version first appeared on the 2004 EP, Hope. Oldham doesn’t alter the song much, but he is still able to add his own personality to it.
“Lover Lover Lover”
With Echo and the Bunnymen all but dead at the time, singer Ian McCulloch had struck out on his own. His 1989 solo debut, Candleland, was followed by Mysterio in 1992, taking the style of later Bunnymen and fusing it with other influences and sounds. His cover of Cohen’s “Lover Lover Lover” remains one of the high spots on the album. The song seems custom-made for him as he emphasizes the more melodic aspects of the tune, and lifts the somewhat darker aspect of the 1974 original. McCulloch’s voice proves a perfect vehicle for the song. It would be interesting to hear him do a whole album of Cohen songs someday.
“You Know Who I Am”
The fact that the Mamas and Papas were falling apart was not going to stop Cass Elliot from picking up and moving ahead. She already had a massive hit of her own in in the summer of 1968 with “Dream a Little Dream,” and she followed that with her debut solo LP that fall. The album was a departure from the Mamas and Papas style, focusing on a different side of Cass. She tackles songs by Graham Nash, John Sebastian and Leonard Cohen, to name a few. Her version of “You Know Who I Am” is gorgeous and breathtaking. Cohen’s own version, released the following year, was a more minimal take, and while it is first rate as well, Cass’ version may be definitive in the long run.
After splitting up the Birthday Party, Nick Cave knew he needed to take his music away from the chaos of his former band, but still retaining the urgency and violence that lay underneath. He accomplished that with his 1984 solo offering, From Her to Eternity. The album opens with a startling cover of Cohen’s “Avalanche,” which sets the tone for the rest. Originally found on Songs of Love and Hate from 1971, Cave highlights the inherent darkness of the tune, revealing the torn and frayed soul within.
“Dress Rehearsal Rag”
The son of actor Rex Harrison, Noel tried his hand at acting, skiing and singing. In the process, he scored a couple of hit records, the first of which was a cover of Cohen’s “Suzanne” which charted back in 1967. On his 1968 album Santa Monica Pier, he delivered this glowing take on “Dress Rehearsal Rag” which fit his style perfectly. Semi-narrative, semi-acted, Harrison’s unique style makes this cover pure gold.
On his 2006 album Songbird, Willie Nelson put a glorious collection of other artists’ songs front-and-center, with a few original compositions mixed in. Alongside songs by Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead, Ryan Adams and Gram Parsons, we find his own stellar take on the classic “Hallelujah.” Though the Jeff Buckley version is better known, Nelson’s version is nothing short of classic as well. His aching voice pushes the song into a different arena from other, more boisterous takes.
For many, Fairport Convention sadly remain a footnote to the career of Richard Thompson instead of being heralded as one of the truly great British bands of the late ’60s. Initially inspired by American rock and folk, they were immersed in songs by such artists as Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers and Leonard Cohen. Though their take on “Suzanne” failed to end up on their debut LP, a version was finally released on Heyday, a 1987 collection of BBC recordings. They electrify the song and give it an edge only hinted at in the Cohen original.
“I Can’t Forget”
On his 1987 album I’m Your Man, Leonard Cohen moved his style into modern terrain, employing many tricks of the trade from that era and in the process making a “modern” sounding album. That kind of move could have spelled disaster were it not for the fact that the songs within were among his best. “I Can’t Forget” is one of that album’s highlights. A straight-ahead pop song from the start, the Pixies emphasize that aspect with their version from the I’m Your Fan tribute album. They give it a charge of electricity to make it a full-on rock and roll song.
“Bird on a Wire”
American Recordings gave birth to the late-career renaissance of Johnny Cash. On that album, Cash was inspired and, with the help of producer Rick Rubin, rebuilt his career and his legacy. In the process, he won over a new generation of fans while turning the ears of old fans back to him as well. Johnny’s own compositions sit next to songs by Nick Lowe, Kris Kristofferson and Glenn Danzig. His take on Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” is one of the key tracks on the album. Though covered many times by many acts over the years, Cash makes it sound like it was written just for him.
“Tower of Song”
The Jesus and Mary Chain always had good taste in cover songs, tackling everyone from the Beach Boys to Can along the way. It’s no surprise that upon sticking their claws into a Cohen song that they would nail it. Found on their 1990 Rollercoaster EP, they rough up the tune a bit as they strip it down and transform it into something all their own.