U2101 – Leonard Cohen

This past week, the world lost a talented giant when poet, writer, singer and songwriter Leonard Norman Cohen died at the age of eighty-two. I was personally a big fan of Mister Cohen, especially his first four albums, but more germane to this article, do you know who else was into Leonard Cohen? That’s right – the four members of U2, particularly Bono and Edge, have professed a love for Canada’s favorite son, even covering some of his music in the past.

The first time that U2’s and Cohen’s paths crossed was in 1995, when Bono recorded a cover of “Hallelujah” for the tribute album Tower of Song – an album that I bought for Bono’s contribution before I even knew who Leonard Cohen was. Bono has called “Hallelujah” the “most perfect song in the world”, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that he chose the song – made famous by Jeff Buckley, along with a host of others – to cover when it came time to pay tribute to one of his songwriting influences. Bono’s cover is interesting, to say the least, as it takes a completely different view of the song from any other version that I’ve ever heard. Bono half-whispers the verses over a playful electronic beat that is laden with horn and trippy synth stabs, but he lets loose with his amazing falsetto in the chorus, bringing an other-worldly character to the transcendent song.

U2 and Cohen next met – literally – in 2008 when the two forces teamed up to record a cover of Cohen’s classic cut “Tower of Song” for inclusion in the film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. (Incidentally, the film contains excellent performances from a legion of Cohen admirers, so if you’re a fan of music at all, I’d recommend giving it a shot.) Cohen himself provides most of the vocal for this stunning cover, but Bono does have one small spot of singing, and Edge provides a breathtaking, mournful guitar part that must be heard to be believed. It literally gives me goose-bumps every time I listen to it. Fortunately, a copy of this song was made available as a B-side to U2’s “Window In The Skies” single, so most U2 fans should have little to no trouble tracking down a copy.

Finally, the most recent event that caused a member of U2 to pay tribute to Cohen occurred earlier this year when The Edge played a deeply stirring version of Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will” at the Sistine Chapel in Italy. It’s no surprise that Edge chose this song for the occasion, as it’s one of Cohen’s most prayerful songs, with the singer offering his voice back to God in praise, if only the singer be permitted to use that voice. In many ways, U2 have made a career out of this sentiment, as Bono regularly offers his vocals up to his God as prayer.

I don’t know whether U2 will incorporate any further tribute to Cohen in any future concerts, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear them cover Cohen again. He is, after all, one of their most important influences, considering the way he incorporated both spirituality and worldliness into his music. I was saddened to hear of Cohen’s passing, but I’m grateful for what he left us – a body of work that will continue to speak to mankind as we roll forward into the future, and his lasting impact on some of the world’s most important artists.

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Ever since I realized as a kid, while poring over the liner notes of the Bob Marley - Songs of Freedom boxed set, that writing about music was a viable career choice, one of my greatest desires has been to write about U2. The band has been a major part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I'm thrilled to have this opportunity to contribute a little something to the fantastic online community that's been built around the band.

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