article by dan einav.
Everybody Knows — Leonard Cohen’s vision of a society rotten to its core
Darkness and humour pervade a track that yielded some surprising cover versions
Leonard Cohen in the mid-1980s
In the mid-1980s Leonard Cohen was mired in a deep depression. His most recent album, 1984’s Various Positions, had received a lukewarm reception and had been turned down by Columbia Records in America. The ignominy almost proved too much to bear for the Canadian songwriter, who began toying with the idea of retiring in order to join a monastery.
But something stopped him. The lucent spirituality which had shone through his last record, not least on the hymn-like “Hallelujah”, was gone, leaving behind an unshakeable feeling of cynicism and resignation. “I got some sense ... this is the fallout, the residue, the dust of some catastrophe, and there’s nothing to grasp onto,” he would later say of his apostasy.
This fatalism eventually liberated Cohen, who found himself feeling freer to take more risks in his songwriting. The result was 1988’s I’m Your Man, a profane, ironic and searingly honest album. And no song better encapsulates Cohen’s new-found identity as the mordant, weary sage than “Everybody Knows”.
For nearly six minutes Cohen unveils a defeatist vision of a duplicitous and morally benighted world. Darkness seeps through the track in both Cohen’s cigarette-infused snarl and the foreboding melody, which sees a heavy synth beat uncannily accompanied by sinuous oud. The lyrics, polemical and poetic, were co-written by Cohen with longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, and touch on everything from racial and financial inequality to drug abuse, the Aids crisis and infidelity — albeit in his own wonderfully oblique style. Yet the song’s tone isn’t that of po-faced admonition but of gallows humour born from a realisation that you can’t change a society that is already rotten to its core; we can picture Cohen smirking as he delivers the line: “Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful, give or take a night or two.”
These are not lyrics that one would expect to hear sung by a peppy 21-year-old pop star. But in 2017 the Norwegian singer Sigrid covered “Everybody Knows” for the DC Comics Justice League film, bringing Cohen’s words to an entirely new audience. In fact, her mellifluous, if overly earnest, piano-led rendition has already garnered three times as many views on YouTube as the original. And despite the incongruous context, Sigrid’s cover does well to retain the song’s inherent eeriness.
“Everybody Knows” was also prominently featured on the soundtrack of the 1990 cult-favourite teen-angst film Pump Up the Volume, for which a new version of the song was recorded by alt-rockers Concrete Blonde. Their cover succeeded in adapting Cohen’s unmistakably 1980s synth sound to the guitar-dominated age of grunge, while lead singer Johnette Napolitano takes care to accentuate the sardonic lyrics with her arch vocal performance.
In 1995 an eclectic group of artists was assembled to record covers for a compilation album in celebration of Cohen’s career. The former Eagles frontman Don Henley chose “Everybody Knows” and rather jarringly turned Cohen’s macabre tune into a catchy singalong rock anthem featuring a bluesy organ and guitar accompaniment. Eleven years later it was the singer-songwriter — and father to one of Cohen’s grandchildren — Rufus Wainwright who recorded “Everybody Knows” for a new tribute anthology. In the starkest of tonal shifts, Wainwright decided to reimagine the song as a swinging, sultry bossa nova hit complete with accordion, snare drum and brass section. Somehow it works.
The Innu-Canadian singer Florent Vollant took things a step further in 2004 by completely rewriting the song in the indigenous Inuktitut language. This version, called “Tshissensitenanu”, retains the general rhythm of the original but replaces the caustic lyrics with new, touchingly identity-affirming words about the Innu people.
Perhaps the best cover, though, was the one performed by Norah Jones at a show in Paris soon after Cohen’s death was announced in November 2016. Now a staple of her live sets, Jones’s take on “Everybody Knows” is a pared-back affair. Her velvety vocals and jazz piano licks give it a pleasantly languid mood and an intimate lounge-bar sound; it almost makes us feel as if we, her listeners, are a select group to whom the hard truths about the world have been revealed in confidence.
In reality though we are among the millions on whom Cohen’s striking words have left their indelible mark. It’s no surprise that the song came fourth in a Rolling Stone readers’ poll of his greatest hits, but the fact that three tracks came ahead of this particular masterpiece emphasises Cohen’s stature as a near-peerless songwriter. Then again, everybody knows that already.
Do you have any personal memories of ‘Everybody Knows’? Has anyone surpassed Leonard Cohen’s version? Let us know in the comments below
‘The Life of a Song Volume 2: The stories behind 50 more of the world’s best-loved songs’, edited by David Cheal and Jan Dalley, is published by Brewer’s
Music credits: Columiba/Legacy; WaterTower Music; UMC (Universal Music Catalogue); Polydor Associated Labels; Decca (UMO)
Picture credit: CBS/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.
Life of a Song
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