Leonard Cohen’s 20 Best Songs

His greatest tracks, as chosen by Robert Plant, Mark Kozelek, Antony Hegarty, Judy Collins and Cohen's bandmates and collaborators

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19 SEEMS SO LONG AGO, NANCY
Songs From A Room, 1969
Archetypal early Cohen, a mordant little chanson that poeticises a local suicide…

ANNA McGARRIGLE: The lyrics always intrigued me. Leonard’s from Montreal, so am I. It’s a small town. The song is about a girl called Nancy who took her own life in 1961. I knew a Nancy [Challies] who had committed suicide, but it was in 1965. She was the sister of my best friend at the École Des Beaux-Arts where I was studying. The next clue was the line “in the house of honesty, her father was on trial”. Nancy’s father had been a judge of the Quebec Superior Court. Later I found out Nancy had had a child with her boyfriend, a young cadet at a military college. Her parents made her give the child up for adoption and this was probably the reason she killed herself. Ten years later to the day, her father took his own life, also with a gun. The family was reeling and they all turned to religion. Leonard changed the time frame and may have taken some poetic licence, and he made this beautiful song.

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18 EVERYBODY KNOWS
I’m Your Man, 1988
This grimly funny study of exploitation introduced Cohen’s new collaborator…

SHARON ROBINSON [singer-songwriter, Cohen collaborator]: Leonard had most of the lyric done when he handed it to me. There’s a profound honesty in it. He’s exposing something we all know and talk about with those close to us, but not publicly. It says that we’re not really in control of our destiny, there are others running things, and we go about our daily lives with that in the background. It’s a protest song, so Leonard wanted something tough. I’d bring home verses, and go to the grand piano in my living room, as his lyrics require that purity of melody. There are synths on the record as he likes the contrast with that very organic-sounding, deep human voice of his. I tried to match the tone of the lyric with music I knew Leonard could sing, and would want to. Leonard always says he has a three-note range, and those limitations on the melody and the importance of words, make you look for music that’s going to propel a lyric forward and give the listener time to digest all its layers. That simplicity leads to something wonderful.

ROBERT PLANT: I admire Cohen, some of his work’s absolutely beautiful. Why “Everybody Knows”? Oh, just listen to the lyrics. It’s just great – it rips into all the superfluous and fancy echoes of society, it’s great. I tried to cut it with Alison [Krauss], about five years ago. What happened? I think T Bone [Burnett] dissolved into his laptop. He was teleported into another place. So Alison and I went for a long Japanese meal with a few gallons of saké and gave up.

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