Leonard Cohen is one of the most popular and successful songwriters ever to grace a stage; producing beautiful and haunting melodies that were augmented with prose that were (and are) regularly considered as nothing short of lyrical genius. His live shows are considered one of the highlights of any musical calendar and his presence on stage is both charismatic and magnetic – a true musical icon delivering awe-inspiring performances.
But enough of the hyperbole, it’s enough to simply say if you get the chance to see Leonard Cohen live you should take it … quickly. Imagine our excitement then when we learned that he will be appearing for two nights only at the O2 in Dublin, on the 11th and 12th of this month.
To celebrate two shows of such magnitude we thought we’d take a look at ten of the best covers of Leonard Cohen songs – some of which you may not even have realised were penned by the great man himself.
1. Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley
Probably the most well-known Leonard Cohen cover, Jeff Buckley’s famous version of this incredible song came to be remembered as one of the greatest covers of all time and the epitome of an artist pouring his soul into a performance. Hallelujah has been covered repeatedly (think John Cale, Rufus Wainwright and even X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke), but Buckley’s reworking of the song included a level of emotion rarely equalled in vocal performances and added an extra layer to Cohen’s original.
While we’re on the subject of the original version, it’s an interesting side note that Cohen reportedly wrote 80 draft verses of the song – struggling with what many would consider to be his masterpiece for many years before paring it down to the version that was recorded in 1984.
2. Suzanne, Nina Simone
‘Suzanne’ was first published as a poem in Cohen’s 1966 book Parasites of Heaven. Originally titled Suzanne Takes Me Down, it appeared as Suzanne on Cohen’s debut album and has been covered numerous times since then; from Tori Amos to Francois Hardy.
Nina Simone’s version of this song however is often considered the best – a jaunty, upbeat rendition of Cohen’s song that was in stark contrast to his own sparse acoustic instrumentation, but worked beautifully nonetheless.
3. Like A Bird On A Wire, Johnny Cash
Bird On The Wire is probably one of Cohen’s best loved and most widely known tracks, appearing on his 1969 Songs from a Room album. Recorded in Nashville in 1968, the song features a country lilt that made it an ideal cover choice for country legend Johnny Cash, who featured it on his American Recordings album.
The Man in Black wasn’t the only one to cover this classic Cohen track, which has also been recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson, K.D. Lang, Joe Cocker and English folk rockers Fairport Convention.
4. Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, Roberta Flack
Roberta Flack is one of the most admired and highly considered female vocalists ever to record an album, and her 1969 cover of Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye is a beautiful and tender version of one of Cohen’s best-loved tracks.
Replacing Cohen’s fingerpicked guitar work with sweeping orchestral instrumentation, Flack’s cover is a wonderful counterpoint to the great man’s original and is often considered one of the best Leonard Cohen covers. Flack was a big fan of Cohen, and as well as featuring this cover on her debut album, she also included a ten minute version of Suzanne as the final track on her album Killing Me Softly.
5. First We Take Manhattan, REM
A song originally recorded by Jennifer Warnes on her 1987 Famous Blue Raincoat album, First We Take Manhattan was then released by Cohen himself as a 1988 single.
REM’s cover of this classic track was fantastically well received when it appeared on the 1991 tribute album I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Featuring chunky guitar riffs and a fantastic vocal performance from Michael Stipe, REM’s version of First We Take Manhattan is often cited as one of the top Leonard Cohen covers.
6. Sisters of Mercy, Beth Orton
One of my own personal favourites, Sisters of Mercy is another track that’s been covered by numerous artists, including Judy Collins and Area. Beth Orton’s version of the song however, which she performed in the film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, is one of the most beautifully performed covers of a Cohen track. Featuring sparse instrumentation, haunting backing vocals and a fantastic vocal performance from Orton, this is definitely one to check out.
7. Who By Fire, The House of Love
Another of the great bands to come out of Creation Records, The House of Love are well known for their superb style of British indie rock – in particular their self-titled debut album.
Recording this cover for the UK edition of I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1991, the band does a phenomenal job of putting their own take on the song and it’s remembered as one of the best Cohen covers of the last 20 years. Their eerie folk version of the 1974 track was so well received in fact that it was chosen as the lead track for the I’m Your Fan tribute album.
8. Chelsea Hotel #2, Lana Del Ray
Another one that’s seen numerous covers (think Lloyd Cole or Regina Spektor), the song was written about a brief sexual encounter with Janis Joplin (an admission that Cohen later said he regretted) in the infamous Chelsea Hotel in New York.
This phenomenal cover from Lana Del Ray is the most recent cover in our list and one of the most hauntingly beautiful reworkings of a Leonard Cohen song we’ve come across.
9. I Can’t Forget, The Pixies
I Can’t Forget is Cohen’s bleak self-narration as its finest; charting his efforts to make up for a life filled with regret by finding the one that got away. The Pixies took this classic song and turned it inside out, populating it with shrieking guitars, heavy drums and a phenomenal booming vocal performance from the ubiquitous Frank Black. A complete shift in tone for the song, this cover from The Pixies is one of the best examples of a band taking one of Cohen’s hits and making it completely their own.
10. Night Comes On, Dax Riggs
This is one of the lesser known covers, certainly in comparison with some of the others we’ve covered here, but it’s also one of the most powerful and well worth a listen for any Leonard Cohen fan.
This phenomenal cover of Night Comes On shows both Leonard Cohen and Dax Riggs at their finest; the quality and emotion in Riggs’ voice beautifully augmenting the somber and powerful lyrics of Cohen. We feel the pain and desperation of the lyrics and Riggs’ baritone voice echoes powerfully throughout the recording, making it one of the most affecting covers of a Cohen song I’ve come across. It isn’t the best recording, but it’s absolutely worth watching.