Thirty-two years and seven albums later, Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man continues to resonate as a record of universal (if not bleak) truths.
My gateway to the music and mystique of Leonard Cohen came through I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, the 1991 tribute album compiled by French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles, but my introduction to Cohen the man happened six months earlier when I heard his poetic and mesmerizing Hall of Fame acceptance speech at that year’s Juno Awards. Cohen famously concluded his remarks by reciting a verse from “Tower of Song”, but not being familiar with the track at the time, the poignancy and power of his lyrics didn’t hit me until months later, when I heard both Nick Cave and the Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster render their versions on the tribute album. Disregarding all the ill-conceived covers of “Hallelujah” littered across our musical landscape, “Tower of Song” remains the indisputable cornerstone song in the Cohen canon. By extension, its parent album, I’m Your Man, is considered by many to be his finest collection.
I’m Your Fan was not only a clever play on Cohen’s 1988 album title but a nod to the overwhelming popularity and influence I’m Your Man had on the compilation’s contributors. Of all Cohen’s albums released to date, I’m Your Man was the best represented on the 1991 tribute album, with four of its eight songs covered: “First We Take Manhattan”, “I’m Your Man”, “I Can’t Forget”, and the afore-mentioned versions of “Tower of Song”. Add to that Concrete Blonde’s cover of “Everybody Knows” from the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack the year prior, and it’s hard to dispute the influence Cohen and I’m Your Man was having on a wide range of musicians at the time.
It wasn’t until I recently decided to spend some time exploring I’m Your Man to mark its thirty-second anniversary that I realized the relatively short gap between its release in 1988 and I’m Your Fan’s in 1991. What was it about the minimalist, three-year-old album that inspired artists like R.E.M., Pixies, and Cave to gravitate to it as opposed to Cohen’s older, time-tested work? The obvious answer is that these musical interpreters considered it to be their favourite — or his finest — album, but it’s also more nuanced than that.
Musically, I’m Your Man solidified Cohen’s early experimentations in modern synth-based music (first tested on 1984’s Various Positions) and introduced new and stalwart fans alike to Leonard Cohen 2.0, a heightened uber-version of the charming, debonair, wry observationalist we’ve since come to cherish and mourn. Cohen’s reinvention (whether intentional or not) coincided with a wave of artists who were catching their second wind, being exposed to a new generation of fans: the following year saw both the Who embark on a highly successful twenty-fifth-anniversary tour and David Bowie’s Sound+Vision box set blow all kinds of sales expectations.
The allure of I’m Your Man can’t be reduced to nostalgia, though; it was too modern and contemporary an album to be mired in some kind of backward-looking sentimentality. Before the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Cold War tensions and ramped-up nuclear arms races made it feel as if humanity was on the brink of annihilation. There was a sense at the dawn of the 1990s that humanity had taken a sharp left turn towards global peace and prosperity, but for a large sector of society, the wounds of the 1980s — the decade where elected officials turned a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic — were too deep to ignore: “And everybody knows that the plague is coming / Everybody knows that it’s moving fast,” he sings on “Everybody Knows”, in acknowledgement that “…the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost”.
Thirty-two years and seven albums (including 2019’s posthumous Thanks for the Dance) later, I’m Your Man continues to resonate as a record of universal (if not bleak) truths. As weary and tired as his baritone sounds, Cohen still manages to radiate strength and conviction. I’m Your Man is Leonard Cohen not as a romantic but a realist. His observations and commentary are as unflinching as they are poetic. “It don’t matter how it all went wrong / That don’t change the way I feel,” he sings on “Ain’t No Cure For Love” while suggesting that neither time, distance, or even forgiveness can heal the rifts humanity inflicts on one another. Even the wry hero on the dystopian “First We Take Manhattan” senses that his ambitious master plan is doomed to fail. And yet, in the spirit of absurdity in the face of despair, Cohen resigns himself — and by extension reminds us all — that humanity’s struggle must continue: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”