In his 2012 album, Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen expanded his music vocabulary beyond the synth-laden productions of recent years, resulting in one of the most musically satisfying releases of his many-storied career. Lyricism is said to be a young man’s game, but our man Leonard remained here at the top of his lyrical game, with quotable lines galore informed by his well-known penchant for blending Jewish wisdom, sensuality and Zen-like aphorisms capable of clearing both the mind and the heart. Consider this from the wonderful ballad “Come Healing” :
“The heart beneath is teaching to the broken heart above.”
And this from the jazzed-up “Anyhow”
Dreamed about you baby /You were wearing half your dress / I know you have to hate me / But could you hate me less?”
He is Canada’s most celebrated songster, even taking into account the considerable achievements of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. His career in music goes back to 1967, and his first album created an audience which has never left him. There isn’t another figure in music at his age (he’ll be 78 this year) who could keep up with the touring schedule of nightly 3 hour shows with frequent international travel that Leonard has taken on lately. Mind you, some of that travel was inspired by the unfortunate fiasco of an untrustworthy accountant who made off with in excess of $5 million a few years ago, but still… Leonard’s got it going on, no doubt of that.
Most welcome in this recording was a return to the guitar and gypsy violin that characterized the unheralded but terrific 1979 release Recent Songs, which in this reviewer’s judgment is the album closest to Leonard’s heart. With Old Ideas he has created a new masterpiece, one that will take its place among the two or three best in his enviable catalogue. This is more than an album of words set to music, a practice of which Leonard has oft been accused: in fact the piano work, the delicious organ, the occasional saxophone, the melodies, the gruff voice: all are worthy of some of the best of Tom Waits. Above all, this record is a great listen, one you will come back to for years to come. Considering that it was his first work of entirely new material in a decade, and he’s at an age when most have hung it up for good, it’s refreshing how infused with melody and instrumentation Old Ideas is.
Old Ideas is Dylanesque in its musicality, and Leonard-like in its half-paced vocals. It’s also strangely akin to a couple of Dylan releases of a decade and more back, those being Time Out of Mind and Oh Mercy, in which the middle-aged Dylan contemplated his mortality. New Cohen tracks such as “Darkness” and “Going Home”, the latter with its brilliant self-mocking lyrics “He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit”, remind us that Cohen sets a standard of songwriting that comes close to his masters: Ray Charles and Hank Williams. The new album is filled with brave and intensely philosophical words from a man who has never failed to reveal the truth about himself, that beneath the contradictions of his humility, religious zeal, sensuality and appreciation of “The Spicebox of Earth”, Cohen is never above taking the easy way out. As are we.
The ethereally gifted Jennifer Warnes, longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson and The Webb Sisters contribute guest vocals, as well as lending a glorious beauty and Americana sweetness to this bluesy, thoughtful and entirely essential record.
Watch: “Going Home”