Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
On December 27, 1967, Columbia Records released an album by a folk musician and a true poet (not necessarily in that order). It was different than anything he’d released before, but there was an audience for this new/old sound of his, and over the years, as the mysterious yet straightforward lyrics were analyzed and treasured in equal measure, the critically acclaimed album grew to be understood as a genuine classic, one that new generations discover and longtime owners rediscover to this day.
That album is, of course, John Wesley Harding by Bob Dylan. Funnily enough, you can describe Songs of Leonard Cohen exactly the same way, right down to the day it was released.
Cohen’s debut album followed six published books (four poetry collections and two novels), and his deep-rooted experience with the written word’s power informs every line of every song, giving them a maturity few performers could touch. His lyrics were more sensual than those of his peers; he wasn’t the handsomest, or the best singer, but there was no question he was a ladies’ man. His musical vocabulary, while less far-reaching than his lyrical one, found one haunting melody after another, to which his soothing near-monotone was somehow the perfect accompaniment. Put them all together and you have a visionary work of art.
It’s a lasting work of art, too – Songs has held sway over creative types for nearly a half century now: it’s the album that director Robert Altman wore out multiple copies of before he used portions of it in his movie McCabe & Mrs. Miller; it’s one of the few albums Beck chose to cover in its entirety with his Record Club; and, needless to say, it’s spawned innumerable other cover versions. We’ve selected ten of them, put them together, and come up with an alternate take on one of the lasting treasures of twentieth-century music.
Meshell Ndegeocello – Suzanne (Leonard Cohen cover)
Cohen’s calling card song, “Suzanne” has had hundreds of covers, but one could make the argument that the artist most affected by it was Nina Simone. She took “Suzanne” through several different incarnations; each rearrangement made the song uniquely hers – at least until she shed it for the next one. Meshell Ndegeocello’s album Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone features a cover of “Suzanne” that, unbelievably enough, feels more closely entwined with Simone’s spirit than Cohen’s – or even Suzanne’s.
John Bergeron – Master Song (Leonard Cohen cover)
Before a mid-70s concert in Denver, Cohen found a number of fans outside who had been promised tickets, only to find the promise had not been kept. “Let them be my guests,” he generously told the lady at the ticket counter. One of those fans was John Bergeron, who repaid the favor years later by recording In the House of Mystery, a collection of Cohen covers that’s available in both regular and acoustic flavors. He’s one of the very few to cover “Master Song,” bringing it across as reverent without being slavishly imitative.
Marissa Nadler – Winter Lady (Leonard Cohen cover)
Cohen’s influence courses strong in Marissa Nadler (“I just keep going back to him whenever I need something to listen to,” she once said), and it’s very evident on her cover of “Winter Lady,” which opened her 2011 collection Covers Volume II. The gentle fingerpicking, the lonely voice, the recognition of being unable to ever leave the stream of warm impermanence – then and now, they all serve to paint a most resonant picture.
Marian Henderson – The Stranger Song (Leonard Cohen cover)
Marian Henderson was an Australian folk singer of the ’60s and ’70s; very popular in her land in her time, she left far too little recorded work. We’re lucky that her fierce cover of “Stranger Song” survives. “I very seldom sang love songs,” Henderson said in one interview, but Cohen’s work overcame at least some of her cynicism. “‘Stranger’ meant a lot to me,” she admitted, adding, “I used to spit it out.”
Frankie Big Face – Sisters of Mercy (Leonard Cohen cover)
Written by Cohen in one sitting after happening upon two lovely muses during a snowstorm in Edmonton, “Sisters of Mercy” gets covered by Pennsylvania’s very own Frankie Big Face (“sometimes a band, often a guy, but always AWESOME,” claims his Facebook page), who turns it from a natural piece where you can feel the body warmth into a sterile, electronica environment that somehow still retains its affection for the subject. Mercy, after all, takes many many forms.
Ravens and Chimes – So Long, Marianne (Leonard Cohen cover)
Ravens and Chimes gave “So Long, Marianne” a vivacious indie-art-rock overhaul, adding a huge “whoa-ah-oh-oh-uh-oh” hook that would have crushed the original to the floorboards, but serves to fling this cover to the heavens. Cohen himself made a point of coming out of seclusion to let the band know how much he liked what they’d done to his song.
The Lemonheads – Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye (Leonard Cohen cover)
“Alternahunk” is a so-called word that has stuck to Evan Dando like warts. The same could be said of his bad habits – but also, fortunately, of his talent. His 2009 covers collection Varshons found him moving among the works of supremely dissimilar artists with the greatest of ease. To cite just one example, the album’s last song is a cover of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”; the next-to-last, of Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” The latter (a duet with Liv Tyler, no less) beautifully conveys the understanding that a breakup doesn’t have to be all pain and torture, thanks to Dando singing with the soft heat of a dying campfire’s embers.
The Low Anthem – Stories of the Street (Leonard Cohen cover)
Mojo magazine put together their own all-cover version of Cohen’s debut, tapping the Low Anthem to perform “Stories of the Street.” This they did by stamping Cohen’s work with their own indie flair and abandoned-building atmosphere. The lyrics and the huge echo combine to make the narrator sound more lost in a world not of his making than ever before.
Omnia – Teachers (Leonard Cohen cover)
The collection of lessons, forever incomplete, that Cohen takes on from his “Teachers” is carried out here by Omnia, a band from the Netherlands who describe their music as “neoceltic pagan folk” and whose website states, “OMNIA turns any concert into a form of shamanic ritual, making the entire audience part of it.” That utter conviction is deeply present in this cover.
Emily Lacy – One of Us Cannot Be Wrong (Leonard Cohen cover)
“A song from the other side of the marriage bed,” Cohen once called “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong.” Multimedia artist Emily Lacy transports the bed to Appalachian country, sits cross-legged on that other side, and brings this cover collection to a close with a mesmerizing performance that slowly fades into the room tone at the end.