Sep 032020

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10. Tanger – The New “So Long Marianne”

I figure I’ve written about maybe two thousand songs in my Cover Me tenure. The number of those that I can bring to mind without any mental prompting or jogging is down around the one-percent range. Tanger’s “The New ‘So Long Marianne'” is in that one percent. I think about how angular it is, how it reworked the melody entirely, how it somehow got out of the Grand Canyon Cohen composed and created a chasm of its very own. To me, the original “So Long Marianne” suggest saying goodbye to someone as she leaves, whereas Tanger left Marianne long before. It’s a marvel, and I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon. – Patrick Robbins

9. Jesus and Mary Chain – Tower of Song

Cohen? Jesus and Mary Chain? Could there be two acts as diametrically opposed? Well, you might think so, with casual knowledge of the warring brothers Reid suggesting their substance-fueled maelstrom of noise anathema to the intellectual whimsy of the Bard of Montreal. And you’d be wrong, as beneath the layers of all of that, beats a sound understanding of melody and texture.

Covering arguably one of Cohen’s simpler songs melodically – standard progression, almost a 12 bar blues – JAMC’s meshed guitars weave a dense thicket of electricity around the slightly down mixed and sotto voce vocal line that embeds just perfectly. I find nothing wrong with seeing JAMC as appropriate torch bearers for the gifts of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, their feedback-laden sonic palette another way demonstrating the same features. Spector and Cohen had mileage together, if not to the love of all. This song in this version displays the debt between them. – Seuras Og

8. Pixies – I Can’t Forget

Leonard Cohen always came across a mellow, laid back type of fellow. With that in mind, it’s thrilling to hear one of his dreamiest songs transplanted into the dark, unpredictable world of the Pixies. Whereas Leonard sang the refrain as though he were fondly recalling a long-lost love, Pixies frontman Black Francis sounds like a PTSD sufferer desperately trying to rid his brain of the memory that won’t leave him alone. The true genius of this cover is that the arrangement has barely been changed – some spiky guitars, a rumbling bass, and Francis’ menacing phrasing is all it takes to turn a dream into a nightmare. – Tim Edgeworth

7. Don Henley – Everybody Knows

“Everybody Knows” is about as upbeat of a song as you will find in the Cohen canon, despite the seriousness of lyrics that touch on adultery, the AIDS crisis, racial inequality, and drug abuse. Eagles frontman Don Henley replaces the synth-heavy sound of the original, reimagining the song into an organ-drenched blues-country romper that could easily fit into a concert between “Hotel California” and “There’s A New Kid In Town.” The background singers that announce themselves toward the last minute of the song are worth the price of admission alone. – Walt Falconer

6. Nina Simone – Suzanne

The A.V. Club says that “Simone’s ‘Suzanne’ sounds like someone she knows, someone to whom she’s told awful secrets while drunk on brown liquor.” It’s true – she’s not the ethereally exotic mystery figure of Cohen’s original, but a confidant, a partner in rhyme. Simone approached “Suzanne” in many different ways – if you like the song posted here, go look up more on YouTube. She’s remade it in the studio and in concert, and that adds to what she brings to it. For Simone, it’s not just a cover–it’s an exploration. – Patrick Robbins

5. R.E.M. – First We Take Manhattan

The first version of “First We Take Manhattan” was released by Jennifer Warnes on Famous Blue Raincoat and, while it has an appropriately creepy feel to it, it’s also bluesy, considering that Stevie Ray Vaughan plays guitar on it. When Cohen released the song in 1987, it had a foreboding, electronic, almost disco sound that worked with the song’s message about extremism and terror. R.E.M., when recording the song for I’m Your Fan, played it like it could have been a cut on Monster, which came out a few years later and featured a harder rocking, more distorted sound than their previous efforts. And their version is still pretty creepy. – Jordan Becker

4. Ravens & Chimes – So Long, Marianne

Ravens & Chimes own one of the great calling cards in music – a note of thanks from Leonard Cohen for the job they did covering “So Long, Marianne.” It was well deserved. They gave the song a sense of adventure, saying so long as they moved on to the next. The vocal hook they put before the last line of each verse would have needed prompt excision anywhere else, but in this cover, it’s essential, an exciting leap toward the chorus. Why be wistful, R&C seem to be saying, when you can be exuberant. – Patrick Robbins

3. First Aid Kit – You Want It Darker

My favorite single-artist Leonard Cohen covers record isn’t even a proper album – it’s MP3s I ripped from YouTube. It is beyond me how no record label has yet turned First Aid Kit’s magisterial 2017 tribute concert into a proper album. Backed by an entire orchestra and choir, plus a host of other special guests from the Swedish music scene, the duo cover hits and deep cuts alike while reciting his poems and letters in between songs. The show is worth watching in its entirety (it bests the splashier Montreal tribute Cohen’s estate put together), but the song that stood a hair above all the others to me was their version of his then-new song “You Want It Darker.” – Ray Padgett

2. Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah

Ah yes, the elephant in the room you’ve all been waiting for. When an entire book has been written about Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah,” there’s very little to add. It’s a song that’s introduced so many to Cohen, to Buckley, to the very idea of what a cover song can do. People aren’t fans of the song so much as proselytizers, out to recruit others to join the cause and spread the word. It is absolutely a Hall of Fame cover, and no amount of faint carbon copies it’s engendered is ever going to change that. – Patrick Robbins

1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Avalanche

Intense and unsettling is probably the most apt way to describe Nick Cave’s initial recording of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche.” Released as the first track on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ debut album From Her to Eternity, it was a hell of a statement for Cave to reintroduce himself (after the split of The Birthday Party) with a cover. But Cave’s an impassioned artist, and making bold statements is his work.

Cohen’s original is intense itself, with a haunting circular finger-picked guitar pattern that carries the song behind Cohen’s poetry. “The crumbs of love that you offer me, they’re the crumbs I’ve left behind/ Your pain is no credential here, it’s just the shadow, shadow of my wound” – Cohen’s words are dark poetry that fit into the Nick Cave canon as if Cave wrote them in his own blood. Cave’s vocals are angrier than Cohen’s, and swing like a pendulum from sadness to viciousness and back again. At times, he allows his voice to shake and crack, as he shifts from the quiet evil enigmatic voice that warns of the all-out battering Cave delivers in between and at the end. The music is spacious and, when Barry Adamson’s bass turnarounds overtake the quiet distorted guitar, it’s alarming. Mick Harvey’s drumming, sporadic and heavy, is anxiety-inducing, coming out of the shadows with irregular hits like an attack. Leonard Cohen said, “I guess you could say Nick Cave butchered my song, ‘Avalanche,’ and if that’s the case, let there be more butchers like that.” We couldn’t agree more.

Also worth noting is Cave’s 2015 cover of “Avalanche” for the TV show Black Sails. This second version features just Cave at the piano with Warren Ellis on violin. Cave’s delivery is more akin to Cohen’s original vocal, but it’s still very much Nick Cave (just modern-day Cave). It’s much softer than The Bad Seed’s 1984 cover, with a sadness and longing in the vocals that take the song in, once again, a completely different direction. – Jay Honstetter

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  12 Responses to “The Best Leonard Cohen Covers Ever”

Comments (12)
  1. I’m not sure how one gets through the top 50 covers of Leonard Cohen and misses Rufus Wainwright’s “Hallelujah”. It’s like the Jeff Buckley version, but with all the weird rough edges I personally dislike sanded off and polished over.

  2. To not include Tori Amos’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” is criminal.

  3. I hate to quibble with someone else’s choices, but it’s boggling to me that Concrete Blonde’s cover of “Everybody Knows” isn’t on this list. It’s not quite superior to the Cohen original, but it’s neck-and-neck.

  4. Not one nod to Rufus Wainwright? Jennifer Warnes?
    This, not criticism. Simply further recognition.

  5. Thank you for this list. One error you might want to fix: the beginning of Glen Hansard’s “Who By Fire” cover (#36) is not “a Yiddish folk song” but the Unetaneh Tokef, the Hebrew prayer central to the most solemn moment of the Jewish year, which “Who By Fire” is a loose adaptation of (which makes the error kinda disappointing). As I see it, the prayer’s tone and text add extra gravitas for the subsequent song to play with (‘who for his greed/who for his hunger’ seems reverent, ‘who shall I say is calling?’ less so).

  6. To include Judy Collins’ “Suzanne” is obvious, given that if “Both Sides Now” hadn’t made her bones, “Suzanne” likely would have. But her live cover of “Joan of Arc” is astonishing, {“Living,” 1971) as much as Joe Cocker’s version of “Bird On A Wire” is gut-wrenching. In fact, the absence of any covers of “Bird” on this list calls its’ completeness into question. And Richie Havens’ take on “Priests,” a song Cohen never released on any of his recordings, and that Collins also recorded beautifully, is sublime, with two single note acoustic guitars soloing throughout, each playing in singular syncopation both before and after the beat, with Havens’ voice providing the rhythm, and his usually driving strummed guitar spare and occasional. It’s really a masterpiece and a testimony to his under appreciated brilliance..

  7. Really good list. Lots of unusual but excellent versions.
    There are always the ones you expected that didn’t make it and mine is Jennifer Warnes – Famous Blue Raincoat.
    Also not much of a fan of the Nick Cave at No. 1. I liked the later version better and would have had Jeff Buckley at No.1.

  8. you missed the best version of Chelsea Hotel (Regina Spektor)

    Her version of Hallelujah is also phenomenal:

    Otherwise, amazing list

  9. A minor correction:
    The superb “Avalanche Quartet” has recorded stuff in Switzerland, but the gang is from the Netherlands

  10. A Cohen cover that deserves attention is by an obscure 90s San Francisco band called Bomb. Their take on Suzanne is sinister, disturbing, and bloody brilliant. As is their album called Hate Fred Love, that it was recorded for. So go ahead and look it up. You’ll understand.

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