Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen’s first studio release since 2004’s Dear Heather, sets a new paragraph in what has been an exhilarating late chapter in a lengthy career. After breaking with his management following an ugly legal battle that left him essentially penniless, Cohen embarked on a lengthy tour, selling out arenas throughout Europe and his native Canada. Though always revered among his fellow songwriters–his work has been covered by everyone from Willie Nelson to Antony to Jonathan Richman–Cohen’s public profile has risen steadily in recent years. For many, Old Ideas is the first Cohen album to arrive amidst the smoke and lights of anticipation; for those who have spent the past few years trekking through the songwriter’s back pages, it’s a strange reprieve to have him come to us.
That relationship, between the master and devotee, is a major theme across Old Ideas. In brushed hymn “Show Me the Place,” Cohen gently begs God’s guidance through dark hours. “The troubles came, and I saved what I could save / A shred of light, a particle, a wave,” he sings. Cohen holds that wave of light like a lantern through the fog, and the clouds break onto the chorus: “Show me the place / Help me roll away the stone … Show me the place / Where you want your slave to go,” he sings, the sustained rumble of his voice dropping on the word “slave.” It’s a shocking moment, sung through teeth grinding in resistance, and it only becomes more shocking several bars later, when Cohen repeats the word with all the sweet reverence of a lover. Opener “Going Home” comes across as a song of love and duty between God man, as Cohen, singing from the perspective of the divine, lovingly calls himself a lazy bastard. He is a master ironist, but both songs feel reverent, honest, direct, paeans to simplicity and the old idea of pleasurable obedience. “I’m tired of choosing desire / I’ve been saved by a blessed fatigue,” he sings over a handful of guitar on “Crazy to Love You.”
Which isn’t to say that Old Ideas is lacking in humor. The seventy-seven year-old Cohen is perhaps at his best when playing the spurned lover. “You said you’ve never loved me / Could you love me anyhow?” he sings with a grin in “Anyhow.” He bounces the b’s in the chorus of “Banjo” with easy charm, while New Orleans brass and cooing female vocals back him up.
Though it’s not without its dalliances, Old Ideas largely eschews the drum machines and smooth jazz cliches that have long been a part of his sound. “Different Sides” mimics “Everybody Knows”’ darkstep, dusted by the Webb Sisters’ whispering and goosed with organ stabs, and a clipped and delayed banjo line cross-stitches “Amen.”
But of course, the music here is nothing more than a vehicle, the beat to which Cohen declaims; even his rightly-celebrated lyrics depend upon their author’s articulation. When the New Yorker ran the lyrics to “Going Home” in January as a poem, the words, laid out in a neat column of black type, seemed sophomoric and self-parodic, the non-sequitur caption to a cartoon of the man himself. In ink, that repeated refrain was uncompelling, and by some contemporary semantic trick, therefore preposterous–”I’m going home without my sorrow / Going home some time tomorrow.”
But oh then that voice. words/ m garner