I wrote at length already about Leonard Cohen two years ago, and I don’t intend this list as comprehensive. His only dud between 1985 and 2016 is Dear Heather — an indifferently sung and written album, to my ears, redeemed by the title track. Many Cohen fans going back to his terrible novel Beautiful Losers may prefer his seventies work, the subject of a future ranking; but I argue that what happened in Cohen’s career during peak Dynasty represented a significant enough break to sever from what he recorded with acoustic guitars and (slightly) stronger vocal range. He needed kitsch arrangements; he needed one-finger keyboard solos.
1. Various Positions (1985)
As elegant as a stiletto sheathed in a velvet glove, Various Positions wastes not a one of its thirty-five minutes; its terseness is its own satisfaction. The prayer “If It Be Your Will,” in which Jennifer Warnes joins Field Commander Cohen at the mike for one of his last vocals in his higher register, is his greatest song. The loping “Coming Back to You” uses its roundelay of a hook for a conclusion of underplayed deviousness. “The Law” matches them. As for “Hallelujah,” well, his estate is grateful for the royalties.
2. The Future (1992)
Advancing further into cha-cha presets and crap Casios as if responding to a dozen years of profligacy, blood letting, and the purloining of the public trust in government, The Future is a skull years after the flesh has been burned off. The title track bids farewell to that David Lynch nightclub sound; the rest of the nineties wouldn’t be so kind to it, especially not in 1992, the year of Nirvana. “Light as the Breeze” would be the secret highlight if my ears didn’t still ring with Billy Joel’s yowl.
3. Ten New Songs (2001)
I can’t listen to “A Thousand Kisses Deep” without key scenes from The Good Thief, writer-director Neil Jordan’s unjustly forgotten film, playing in my head. Amiable shell of a jewelry thief and man Nick Nolte gets off the needle for One Last Heist. Cohen’s courtly duet with collaborator Sharon Robinson — so courtly he’s almost throwing a raincoat over a puddle for her sake — suits the mood of wrecked glamour. Like the Dylan of “Love and Theft,” Cohen’s goblet-of-ash whisper is appropriate to material that allows the old ham to underplay for once.
4. I’m Your Man (1988)
As epochal as Dylan Goes Electric, I’m Your Man re-invents Leonard Cohen as a Master of Chintz, using the cheapest means necessary to present himself as a troubadour slightly above it all in his tower of song but not so much that he wouldn’t whisper Lorca verses over Casio synth lines. A marvelous record, and one with legs. Hearing “Everybody Knows” on the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack introduced Cohen, and it’s like the singer-songwriter of Songs of Love and Hate never existed. I’m Your Man is the debut.
5. Popular Problems (2014)
It’s hard to remember which songs appear on the comeback albums, but to my ears Popular Problems is where the performing chops gained by a tour necessitated by money problems. What I wrote in 2014: On first or even fourth listen it sounds slight: Ten Croaked Hymns. Female backup singers in “Did I Ever Love You” do the lifting; when Cohen actually sings on “Did I Ever Love You” he sounds like someone lifting a Buick off his back. But I’m Your Man, Ten New Songs, and Old Ideas sounded slight on fourth listen too. Placing “Slow” first in the lineup was shrewd, for it contains one of his truest confessions: “I always liked it slow…and not because I’m old,” he rasps over a blues riff played by a somnolent horn section. With Patrick Leonard and his organ licks more prominent and essential than on Old Ideas, Cohen offers more melodies than the fans who think he’s a words first guy are willing to admit, starting with “Samson in New Orleans” — a farewell to an idea, graced by a violin solo so fulsome that I hope Cohen’s around to take Alexandru Bublitchi on tour.