Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, Various Artists (1995)

Like the Beatles, Dylan, and the Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen stands like a Colossus over the straits through which modern music has passed. His gravel-voiced penitence and insightful lyrical ambiguities have indelibly influenced the course of popular music. Interest in Cohen resurged when Concrete Blonde struck gold with its heartfelt rendition of "Everybody Knows" on the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack, Kurt Cobain evoked a "Leonard Cohen afterworld" on "Pennyroyal Tea" (where he soon thereafter took up early retirement), and Cohen himself bookended Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers with his distinctive musings.

Enter Tower of Song, one of the more high-profile industry tributes to Mr. Cohen, featuring 13 artists from a variety of genres and a liner notes tribute penned by Tom Robbins. Unfortunately, Robbins may be the only one involved in this affair who brought any originality to bear on Cohen's legacy. Although most of the songs on Tower are faithful renditions of Cohen's earlier vision, few -- if any -- transcend the originals.

The best tunes on Tower are those that attempt to convey Cohen's innate creepiness. Bono took time off of Passengers to spook up "Hallelujah," while Peter Gabriel returns to his own eerie Mercy Street to search for "Suzanne." And speaking of Suzannes, Suzanne Vega scores the most points on the album with "Story of Isaac," a stripped-down, soul-baring plea that comes closest to evoking Cohen's glory days.

Unfortunately, the rest of the artists merely go through the motions. Tori Amos's "Famous Blue Raincoat" is yet another version of the same old song she's renamed and redone a dozen times over, complete with -- you guessed it -- cascading piano. Worse, Don Henley's Eagle-fied "Everybody Knows" doesn't even do justice to the Concrete Blonde version, let alone Cohen's original. Martin Gore's "Coming Back to You" is relatively bland and will probably only be enjoyed as a curio for Depeche Mode fans. Even Elton John washes out with a depressingly insipid version of "I'm Your Man."

Unless you're a huge fan of one of the included artists, you would do better to consult the works of Cohen himself in order to appreciate the man's lyrical mischief and enormous impact on modern music. This Tower rests in the shadow of Cohen.

[First appeared in Harvard Independent, 1995.]

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