Leonard Cohen, prolific singer, songwriter, and poet, died on Thursday at 82. The artist’s career spans more than 50 years, and his songs are considered essential to the modern musical canon. His work covers all aspects of the human condition, from heartbreak to love, political unrest to peace, depression to hope.
Cohen’s five-decade musical career stretched from the 1960s to just this October, when he released his 14th and final album, You Want It Darker. To those with a passing knowledge of Cohen, he may be best known for his song “Hallelujah” (though it’s hard to peg him with one reason for being “best known”). That sweeping song is emblematic of Cohen’s style: It touches on religious themes, its lyrics are poetic and leave room for interpretation, and, in true Cohen fashion, it took him five years to write.
However, Cohen’s career was vast. From writing poetry in the ’50s to playing acoustic music in the ’60s to venturing into the electronic sound arena in the ’70s, ’80s, and beyond, the singer’s storied career is hard to sum up. As his music label’s official announcement states on his Facebook page, “We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries.” Here are three songs that exemplify Cohen’s style, artistry, and talent.
1) Poetic, acoustic roots: “Bird on the Wire”
In 1969, Cohen released his second album, Songs From a Room. The album is a spare, acoustic creation, with a focus on Cohen’s words and lyrics instead of any overwrought accompaniments or production techniques. This acoustic tone remained present in most of Cohen’s work throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, forming the bedrock of his long career.
“Bird on the Wire” is the standout track from Songs From a Room, and one of Cohen’s most famous. Cohen started writing the song while living on the Greek island of Hydra to help lift himself out of a depression, and it was inspired by his muse and lover Marianne Ihlen. The song itself, ostensibly about a bird sitting on a wire, is really a heartfelt poem about relationships and freedom, set to a simple, plucking guitar.
2) Love, sexuality, and synth: “I'm Your Man”
Cohen released his eighth album, I’m Your Man, in 1988. The record marked a decisive move into a different sound, with electronic or synth-pop elements featured on most of the tracks. Though the album’s production swings more modern, Cohen’s voice and lyrics remain steadfast throughout. Heavy hitters like “Tower of Song,” a poignant commentary about Cohen’s own place in the musical canon, and “Everybody Knows,” a pessimistic rumination on social evils, come in as two of the singer’s best.
“I’m Your Man,” the title track, exposes Cohen’s sultry, romantic side. The singer is no stranger to songs about love, but this in-your-face declaration of desire makes “I’m Your Man” a standout. With its synth intro and smooth, deep-voiced lyrics, “I’m Your Man” shows some of Cohen’s baser impulses.
3) Dark, political realism: “The Future”
Much of Cohen’s body of work is steeped in social commentary. In his 1992 album The Future, Cohen dives deep into this genre, with references to the recently demolished Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, and World War II.
The record’s title track exemplifies this type of songwriting: “The Future” is a dark meditation on a world gone awry, filled with murder, drugs, the devil, and Hiroshima. Cohen’s voice, supplemented by an orchestral, repeating chorus, is urgent and gruff, comparable to the style he uses on similarly themed songs — including “You Want It Darker,” from the album he released this October, in which he sings about darkness descending after smothering a flame.
Cohen’s legacy — a rich, deep well of music and art — is cemented forever in the musical world and the cultural zeitgeist as a whole. As for the singer himself, he seemed content with his accomplishments. “I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy,” he told the New Yorker’s David Remnick in October in the last interview he gave before his death. “I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”