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Here's How Leonard Cohen Writes Love Songs

A Leonard Cohen love song isn’t like your standard pop music tune about falling for someone. When the Canadian singer-songwriter wrote about love, it wasn’t a hyper-stylised or teen-drenched view. Instead Cohen’s love songs are full of complexity and realism, as involved and intricate as love itself.

“Nobody has distilled such a complex emotion into words with the same veracity and purity as Leonard Cohen.” notes Noah Lefevre, the music journalist behind the brilliant YouTube video essay channel Polyphonic. Who, in this video (above), tackles “How Leonard Cohen Writes a Love Song”.

Lefevre explains how Cohen dedicated his career to explaining, by refining and honing his craft and lyrics, an emotion and feeling that is one of the most inexplicable that human beings can experience.

Leonard Cohen shot at the Montcalm Hotel, London, UK in 1979. © Jill Furmanovsky

This refining began back when Cohen fine-tuned his writing by versing poetry in Montreal in the 1950s and 60s. Especially inspirational was his friendship with famous Canadian poets, Irving Layton and Louis Dudek.

After he left Montreal he went to New York and “Suzanne” became his first hit. The piece originally started as a poem back in 1966, then found musical success when it was covered by Judy Collins. The following year it then became Cohen’s debut single in 1967, taken from the album Songs of Leonard Cohen.

It was a song inspired by Cohen’s platonic friendship with a woman called Suzanne Verdal, whose boyfriend was sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. In the song Cohen describes the activities they did when they first met. Like Cohen visiting her at her apartment by Montreal harbour and drinking tea, and their walks around Old Montreal.

Leonard Cohen enjoying a quiet moment in Amsterdam, Holland in April 1988. © Lex Van Rossen

Lefevre notes that, although the love here was platonic, a lot of the themes that Cohen continued to explore were established. “Love for Cohen comes from understanding,” says Lefevre. “There’s a kind of mystic connection between Suzanne and Cohen. Something that exists in more than words.”

This mysticism is taken a step further in the second verse, a theme that comes up again and again throughout Cohen’s love songs. And that is likening love to religion, in “Suzanne” by invoking Jesus Christ and divinity.

Still, one theme that isn’t present in “Suzanne” is the painfulness of love. That theme didn’t come until a couple of albums later, in Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. Lefevre picks the track “Famous Blue Raincoat” as the one which most typifies the album’s title. A song that, is not directly about a woman like “Suzanne” but instead is about two men, who fall for the same woman. A woman called Jane. “I think what’s most amazing about the song,” says Lefevre, “is how little Cohen actually talks about Jane. His love for her is told through the spite that he feels for the man she had an affair with.”

Leonard Cohen inspired a Glastonbury ‘moment’ when he played his legendary song ‘Hallelujah’ during his Pyramid Stage slot at Glastonbury. © Virgilio Ponce

Although a different song to “Suzanne”, both songs reflect the experience of love not just in the lyrics and their comparisons of it to religion, but in the chord progressions and structure too—which reflect what’s happening in the narrative and the up or down emotions the song’s protagonist is feeling.

One song that explores the themes of both these tracks “the divinity, pain and religion of love” is Cohen’s most celebrated love song, “Hallelujah”. The religious aspect is one that’s explored even in its construct, with a composition that mimics gospel music.

Yet in the song, although the term “hallelujah” is Hebrew for “praise the Lord” Cohen’s use of it is a much more ironic one. In between verses that detail his failed relationships, he sings the chorus with a sense of self-deprecation.

And the sense of love as failure, of love as a difficult journey is what makes the song so appealing and enduring. It’s something that isn’t just referred to ironically in the chorus, but is more explicitly stated in some of the verses Cohen adds in when singing the song live (originally Cohen wrote 80 verses for the song, then edited them down for the album recording).

Verses that show that love is “not a great victory, it’s painful, it’s difficult, it’s the first step in a long path.”

Listen to Leonard Cohen singing a live version of “Hallelujah” below.

Rockarchive is delighted to be able to offer many iconic Leonard Cohen images as limited edition photographic prints which you can buy here.

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