Leonard Cohen: The Essential Leonard Cohen (Sony)

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Leonard Cohen: Alexandra Leaving
Leonard Cohen: The Essential Leonard Cohen (Sony)

The British rock writer Nigel Williamson, considering the career of Leonard Cohen, recently observed, “We often describe singer-songwriters as being 'Dylanesque', a band with great harmonies you might describe as 'Beatlesque'. We even talk about someone being 'Waitsean', after Tom Waits.

“But have you ever heard the word 'Cohenesque'? It doesn't exist, and that says it all.

“He's a unique artist and not only has he never been copied, I don't think anybody has even contemplated trying to do so.”

Leonard Cohen – 75 and still touring – occupies a unique position in music: he has been included in rock culture, but was never part of it. And although nominally a “folk musician” early on, he wasn't part of the folk movement either.

Cohen has always been a man apart: a writer with four acclaimed books of poetry and two novels behind him before his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen.

That album was released at the end of 1967. Others with debuts that year included Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. The multi-coloured air was infused with incense, marijuana and psychedelic drugs (the Beatles Sgt Peppers' released in June) and Cohen's monochrome Songs arrived with spare, poetic lyrics and a sense of quiet.

Susanne, Sisters of Mercy and So Long Marianne made people stop and listen. They were folk – but not folk of the protest movement of a few years previous, or the surreal lyricism of Bob Dylan.

Cohen – Jewish, from French-speaking Montreal – came from a more European consciousness. But most rock listeners were unfamiliar with French singers like Jacques Brel or the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, Cohen's formative influences.

Throughout his long career – made more alluring by his absence when he retired to the Mt Baldy Zen monastery in California for a five year stretch until 99 – Cohen had outsider status, and that placed his music beyond the whims of cultural change.

Bird on a Wire from 69 resonates as much today as it did then, and his interpretation of The Partisan from the same year perhaps even more so in these troubled times.

Of his more recent songs In My Secret Life from 01's Ten Songs (the album with co-writer Sharon Robinson after his return to the world from Mt Baldy) reaches across generations for its honest heart: “I do what I have to do to get by. But I know what is wrong and I know what is right, and I'd die for truth in my secret life . . .”

Two years ago Cohen returned to the stage after a 15 year absence. His subsequent tours have been critically acclaimed and those seduced by his exceptional Vector Arena or Wellington concerts in January 09 will doubtless have the Live in London DVD released last year.

But for anyone wanting an overview of the original songs which made people catch their breath, Cohen's career has been distilled onto The Essential Leonard Cohen double disc.

Here are 31 of his best known songs: from Suzanne and Sisters of Mercy through Famous Blue Raincoat and Hallelujah to First We Take Manhattan, The Future and A Thousand Kisses Deep.

An expanded version which adds seven song on a third disc (the collection Essential Leonard Cohen 3.0) unfortunately doesn't extend into his last album Dear Heather of 04 (aside from one track, The Letters), but it fills in a gaps with songs from the 70s (including Death of a Ladies' Man produced, improbably, by Phil Spector).

But as an overview of a career which defies easy analysis these are useful primers. And of course he sounds like no one other than himself.

And no one sounds “Cohenesque”.

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