Leonard Cohen – [Album]

Sunday, 29 January 2012

As has been the case every other time Leonard Cohen has released a new album since 1969, the first question which really begs asking when one examines Old Ideas is how much rhetoric inspired it, how much rhetoric was required to produce it, how much wry wit has been laced into it and how many perfectly polished double entendres fuel it. These are the thoughts that seasoned fans will have before they hear one note of music. Before they hear one note too, the wheels in their minds will already be turning; they won't be able to resist asking about the motives in Cohen's language; “Old Ideas? Like songs which have fell by the wayside over the course of Cohen's 45-year career, but he's re-discovered and is now recording them?” or, secondly, “Old Ideas? As in, these ten songs represent Cohen's views, opinions and observations on old age now that he's seventy-seven?”

As it turns out, Old Ideas includes an equal amount of both of those angles, but is also more ambitious than that. All of the singer's renewed activity over the last few years (notably the two-year world tour on which he embarked in 2008) manifests immediately as a plethora of sounds which have never appeared in Cohen's records before begin to emerge on Old Ideas. That will be the first source of excitement for longtime fans, but the singer's steadfast stoicism endures vibrantly as well; in effect, the ten songs here are literally founded in old ideas (and themes which have been present in Leonard Cohen's work for decades) but informed by new sounds and new life; the only reason they aren't called “Classic Ideas” is because Leonard Cohen is (and always has been) entirely too modest.

The singer's modest nature is exhibited perfectly as “Going Home” opens Old Ideas and sees the singer immediately toss some off-handed anonymity into the proceedings by casting himself as little more than a bit player in his own production with the words, “I love to speak with Leonard/ He's a sportsman and a shepherd/ He's a lazy bastard living in a suit.” In those lines, Cohen has the luxury of having his cake and eating it too! He's allowed to acknowledge the accolades he's been afforded over recent years (his induction into the rock n' roll hall of fame, for example) and chastise himself for being a less-than-prolific songwriter (Old Ideas is his first album of new material in eight years) at the same time – it's perfect. Likewise, the introductory strains of mellotron and sand-blocks are reminiscent of the performance practice on the 2008 world tour as well as updating the synth backdrops the singer utilized on such classic albums as I'm Your Man and The Future without sounding anachronistic at all; it's an excellent re-introduction and, from there, the going only gets more adventurous. Beginning with “Amen,” for example, Cohen seems to finish the prayer he began twenty-eight years ago with “Hallelujah” (which the singer has since said will be retired from the stage – though he has performed it within the last four years) with a certain firm finality that it's hard not to find attractive before the singer shows listeners how deeply catharsis and resignation can be felt with a weeping violin and a gravel-intoned vocal on “Show Me The Place” and what true hellfire and brimstone can really sound like in the blues on “Darkness.” Thematically, each of these songs could easily be the root from which Cohen built an entire exercise, but the sort of mixed way in which Old Ideas is assembled feels that much more satisfying because it does examine several possibilities, but never falters or finds an ill-advised moment.

As Old Ideas progresses and begins to wind down through the sleepy country strains of “Banjo” and the western twilight of “Lullaby,” listeners will instinctively know the proceedings are coming to a close but, because the album played out as it did, no listener can justifiably complain. After eight years and now pushing eighty years old, Leonard Cohen has far exceeded every expectation that fans could have had of him in Old Ideas but, graciously, the singer goes one step further. Cohen closes Old Ideas with “Different Sides”  and shows listeners how, twenty years later, there is more (ahem) to the future than he previously imagined. In the end, Cohen re-models some of the modes, rhythms and dynamics of the title track from his landmark album The Future and adds more to the story with lines like “We find ourselves on different sides of a line nobody drew/ Though it only be one in the higher eye, down here where we live it is two.” In that, Cohen doesn't retract his previous assertions on the future (which once included crack, anal sex and murder and so on) so much as say that there's more to it – it is unknown – and he only found out after he got a little older and became wise enough to see. For longtime fans, such an epiphany turns out to be the answer they were hoping for even though they didn't realize it was the question they had in mind and, for Cohen himself, it affords a narrow, backdoor passage through which he'll be able to re-enter the dialogue he left almost a decade ago and add new insights with the benefit of further wisdom, and maybe arc off into new directions. No matter what he chooses to do, Old Ideas plainly signals a new, exciting rebirth for Leonard Cohen.



Old Ideas will be released on January 31, 2012 by Columbia Records. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

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