Release Date: Jan 31, 2012
Record label: Columbia
Genre(s): Folk, Pop/Rock
Every song on Leonard Cohen's first album of new material in eight years takes place in the wee small hours. Tempos are at a kingsnake crawl and the sound is full of caresses, variations on the classy but louche cabaret tunes Cohen once dubbed the European blues. The vocals and music unfold in a whisper, and each cut waits tremulously for the dawn, with no guarantee that this time the darkness will not be permanent.
Anyone who was hoping that Old Ideas, the long-awaited new studio album from Leonard Cohen would reveal a poet who finally realized that the glass might be half full after all, will be sorely disappointed with these 10 new songs. The rest of us who harbor no such expectations or illusions are in for a treat as the Montreal singer’s newest collection is—hands down—his best studio album since I’m Your Man came out in 1988. A self-described “manual for living with defeat,” Old Ideas is a Leviticus and Deuteronomy of suggestions of atonement for carnal error and misplaced faith that puts to rest any idea that Cohen has mellowed with age.
There is no precedent in popular music for Leonard Cohen. An acclaimed poet and novelist in his 20s, he didn’t record his first album until he was 33, when he had the distinction of being the first “New Dylan” who was older than Dylan himself. Many of the lyrics on his vinyl debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen (released December 27, 1967), were built around his old poems.
Leonard Cohen, has always possessed a droll, self-effacing sense of humor. He expresses it on the opening track of Old Ideas in the third person: "I love to speak with Leonard/He's a sportsman and a shepherd/He's a lazy bastard/Living in a suit...." It's just of the typical Cohen topical standards on offer here: spiritual yearning, struggle, love, loss, lust, and mortality are all in abundance, offered with the poet's insight. He is surrounded by friends on Old Ideas.
I hate to say it, but maybe Leonard Cohen should go broke more often. After spending two years touring to recoup losses from shady management, the iconic Canadian singer/songwriter has emerged with his best work in well over a decade. Gone are the much-maligned synths that dominated his albums since the 80s, replaced with understated, earthy production that beautifully complements his richly evocative songwriting.
At the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, Leonard Cohen was woken from a nap in the early hours of the morning and told it was time to take the stage. Faced with a frenzied and potentially hostile crowd buzzing off the previous performance by one Jimi Hendrix, he calmly and persuasively placated his audience. While his stage banter occasionally verged on the incomprehensible, his songs were magical, hypnotic, and he struck the deepest of chords with the assembled festival-goers.
If long-term music fandom teaches you anything, it is that the value of your investments can go down as well as up. Your idols can develop feet of clay and ears of cloth. And then there's idols like Leonard Cohen. The Montreal poet found an acoustic guitar thrust into his hand in the mid-Sixties, the better to prostitute his art via the medium of pop.
Leonard CohenOld Ideas[Columbia; 2012]By John Ulmer; February 1, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetBased on the title of its lead single ("Going Home"), you might expect Old Ideas to be a very somber, reflective record –- one of the sorts that Johnny Cash was recording in his final years, when he embraced the fact that he was nearing the end of his life and created some of his most frail, heartbreaking work, literally singing from his deathbed at one point. But there’s still cynicism seeping through Cohen’s disaffected voice, which, though it never lent itself to traditional vocals, is now more than ever a soft, hoarse whisper, at times seeming to lose itself beneath the crest of the rhythm section. As wonderful a lyricist as he may be, Cohen’s records over the course of the past two decades or so have suffered somewhat (some might say largely) due to garish production qualities -- awkwardly loud, outdated synth keyboards; an over-reliance on misplaced, cheesy backing vocals, etc.
Old Ideas arrives at a crucial juncture in the Leonard Cohen saga. While Laughin' Len has been a legend for decades-- especially among those who like their lyrics with a generous sprinkling of black-humored poetry-- he has more recently achieved the kind of iconic status that's generally reserved for the dead (not The Dead) and maybe Bob Dylan. In addition to the attention garnered by the 2005 tribute film I'm Your Man, where everyone from Bono to Rufus Wainwright swore their undying love for the Canadian songwriter, over the last few years Cohen has been touring extensively after a long absence, with a surprisingly busy tour schedule for an artist of his particular vintage (he's now 77), which helped put Leonard on a first-name basis with new generations of fans all over the globe.
Old Ideas is, in its own tender, smirking, Leonard Cohen-y way, a clever title. In one sense, the ideas here are ones we've heard from Cohen before: Life is a nostalgic, sorrowful experience punctuated by the occasional joke; language can clarify as much as it can obscure; and lust is one of the highest forms of prayer. In another sense, Cohen is telling us that the ideas on this album-- home, healing, origins, and endings-- are ideas that take on a starker, more metaphorical weight as time goes on.
It’s impossible not to love Leonard Cohen. And I don’t necessarily mean platonically, though he himself manifests Platonic ideals — or at least one (of which more later). An “old scholar, better-looking now than when [he] was young” (as he wrote in his brilliant but self-indulgent novel, Beautiful Losers), even when he’s touring merely to recover a lifetime of lost profits, this reviewer can testify that it’s impossible to believe that his disarming courtesy and gratitude are not completely sincere.
To call Leonard Cohen a living legend would be to define the term. The man has a shadow that stretches across over 40 years of music history, his immaculately written lyrics providing inspiration for countless musicians. Yet here he is, 44 years after the intensely powerful Songs of Leonard Cohen, delivering material that matches the depth and power of that first solo record, covering the same tropes of mortality, sexuality, and religion, while remaining as vibrant and striking a poet as ever.
Old Ideas‘s prevailing theme of exhaustion, mixed with hints of Leonard Cohen’s Buddhist faith to provide a feeling of patient acquiescence to the demands of death and aging, makes for an album that’s both blithely realistic and just plain dreary. It has a lot of the telltale Cohen markings, with beautifully poetic tangents taking the place of straightforward lyrics and muttery talking in place of actual singing, but the material is so meandering and diffident that the actual content becomes a mystery, whether the lethargy on display is a consequence of form or a sign of authorial dejection. There’s definitely the sense of Cohen facing a void and welcoming its emptiness, in the same way he’s taken on very dark subject matter over the last 40-odd years, resulting in songs whose otherwise oppressive blackness is leavened by smirking irony.
“Laughing” Len. Music to cut your wrists to. The suicide songbook. Many are the misconceptions that have been put against the music of Leonard Cohen over the years, keeping him as a strange kind of musical curio since he first emerged as a writer who couldn’t sing on 1967’s Songs Of Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen’s twelfth studio album in forty-four years opens curiously with a song titled “Going Home,” which both introduces Leonard Cohen as an artist and details the metaphysics of his own creativity. The man needs no introduction, of course: Everybody knows who Leonard Cohen is. We may not necessarily think of him as “a sportsman and a shepherd” or “a lazy bastard in a suit,” but we know the Canadian as a man with a physical voice so deep it sounds like a black hole and a lyrical voice so ominously Old Testament that his business card probably lists him as a singer-psalmwriter.Stream Old Ideas In Its Entirety But this insight into his process is a very different side of Cohen, one not often glimpsed in the past.
Leonard Cohen, 77, doubtlessly always possessed wisdom and wit well beyond his years. Now entering his sixth decade of recording and more than 40 years after the prophetic passion of Songs of Love and Hate in 1971, the Canadian poet's experienced tales of personal, sexual, and religious rapture have aged with a sense of wistful defeat and weathered acceptance. Old Ideas, his first album of new material since 2004's Dear Heather, gently approaches that good night with a knowing wink and nod.