Monday, January 30, 2012

Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas Review

Listening to Leonard Cohen's latest album, it's not surprising he called it Old Ideas - there is nothing new musically here but at age 77, it's not like anyone was expecting Cohen to go dubstep. The languorous rhythms and distant strains of European jazz and folk continue the Cohen story and the lyrics mine the same territory as ever: love, mortality, God and life but seemingly through a darker lens this time. The relationships are broken, the darkness is encroaching and the nights seem longer. Lucky for us, age has not wearied his lyrical genius but it seems much more succinct and focussed this time round. In Anyhow, he asks for forgiveness from an angry ex which will never be forthcoming:

I dreamed about you baby
I know you have to hate me
I'm naked and I'm filthy
And both of us are guilty.

From any other 77 year old, the line I'm naked and I'm filthy line might raise an eyebrow but Cohen exudes an understated sexuality and lust of a man a third of his age. The deep, silky growl holds a lot of power even in the most sparsest of musical settings. The acoustic lament Crazy To Love You is the best song here - Leonard and a single nylon string guitar recounting a tale of an elusive love, it is beautiful as it is heartbreaking. The closest thing to a single here is Darkness which sounds like a cousin of Everybody Knows but the fight has been long lost starting with the lines:

I got the darkness
From drinking from your cup
I said is this contagious?
You said "just drink it up"

Whatever is preoccupying Leonard now is a set of dark materials but this was always the soul of his best work. The album is at times startlingly frank but it is understated and delicate in its delivery. The mortality aspect of Cohen's age seems to loom large here but not in a way that is overwhelming or alienating - there is something matter-of-fact about the whole record as if it is an inevitable conclusion to a life of vice. Maybe Cohen feels Old Ideas might be his last record (he's hardly prolific with twelve albums of original material since the late 60's) but it doesn't feel like the end, just a slow recede from the light in reluctant submission.

When my friend first gave me my first Leonard Cohen album in my teens, he jokingly referred to him as 'laughing Lenny.' That was over twenty years ago but I guess it's a joke that never gets old even if it's not quite correct - there is humour here (within the first breathe of the album he refers to himself as "a lazy bastard living in a suit") even if it laced with darkness and bitterness. But then, we wouldn't have it any other way, Cohen has delivered a dark, lyrical album that most musicians could only dream of making.

Old Ideas is streaming on NPR here.


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