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Music

Five remarkable Leonard Cohen songs

Leonard Cohen performs at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Dec. 4, 2012.

Leonard Cohen performs at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Dec. 4, 2012.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Leonard Cohen had a recording career that spanned five decades. Robert Everett-Green selects five notable songs from the iconic Canadian musician

Leonard Cohen wrote many wonderful songs, and hardly any that don't contain at least a moment when word and sound fuse into something unforgettable. Here are just a few remarkable numbers from his recording career of five decades.

Bird on the Wire (1967)

This slow country waltz from his second album is actually quite religious, in its plea for forgiveness and vow to do better. But it's also about the need to be free, get drunk, make mistakes and live in contradiction. A perfect fusion of Cohen's monkish and bohemian sides.

Famous Blue Raincoat (1971)

This cryptic musical letter to a friend is a masterpiece of tone, and of concealed meaning. When Cohen's voice rises in the chorus to sing about the gift of a lock of hair, the feeling reaches you first, lagged by thoughts about what kind of intimate tale may be crystallized in this detail. Only later do you realize that Cohen has snuck in a poet's old cliché and made it shine.

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Hallelujah (1984)

Cohen wrote this sauntering song about a single holy word at a low point in his career, and no one at his record company thought much of it. Three decades later, it had become so popular that even Cohen gently suggested it might be time to give it a rest. Covers are legion, and Cohen was said to be fond of a Hebrew version by members of the Israeli Defense Force.

Everybody Knows (1985)

This is Cohen at his darkest, singing about the loaded dice, the fixed fight, and the cruelty we see and do but try not to acknowledge. We're all in here together, lying in each other's faces, and knowing that we know it. A devastating song, yet quite danceable.

Amen (2012)

Cohen was nearing 80 when he wrote this sly, shuffling song about things that need to be said over and over, either for comfort or because of failing memory. And yet his powers as a songwriter were still strong, and capable of pinning an arresting image to a good tune. "Try me again when the angels are panting, and scratching at the door to come in."

We'll never stop trying you again, Leonard.

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