Review: Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
Published on February 9th, 2012 | Nick Cole-Hamilton
After the abysmal Between Two Worlds Sony advertisement in which Leonard Cohen incomprehensibly butchered one of my favourites of his recent poems – namely “A Thousand Kisses Deep” from Book of Longing – I must say that I had mixed feelings about the prospect of a new Cohen album. That being said, everybody’s got to eat, and no one could begrudge the man who came down off the mount to find his manager had absconded with the greater portion of his life’s earnings from doing a little ad work to help the old machinery tick over.
When it finally came to it, I therefore approached this new album with some degree of trepidation. Being a life-long fan, I was a little worried that in the midst of the near universal acclaim it received, I might just be presented with another Bad as Me (Tom Waits’s most recent release); that is to say, a highly polished, well executed, well produced album that somehow sounded like an only passable impression of what it actually could or should have been. With that in mind, I prepared myself for minor disappointment. How blissfully wrong I was proven.
The first track on Old Ideas strikes this listener as a kind word spoken to Cohen’s younger self. This is a humorous and touching reflection in which the old familiar weight has been lifted and the wrong-doings forgiven, where there is both fondness and admonishment for his younger self: “A sportsman and a shepherd, a lazy bastard living in a suit”. The central verses of this song show that in growing old, Master Cohen is aware of everywhere and everything he has been, and ultimately the realities that those journeys have led him to. To quote at length (because analysis of these key lines will do them no justice at all):
“He [L.C.] wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat
A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I want him to complete
I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
That is to say what I have told him
And what is repeated is that he is going home, without sorrow and without burden. These verses have echoes of “The Stranger Song”, particularly in the line “Please understand, I never had a secret chart/To get me to the heart of this/Or any other matter’. “Going Home” is a humble rumination on the figure he has oft been portrayed as. It affirms, unobtrusively, that Leonard is here reborn, still full of charm and wit, utterly capable of casting his same old brand of magic, in new and effortless ways. He is ready for the next stage of the journey, be it death, another tour, or simply a journey “home”.
Fluttering drums and stuttering banjos fill the air, and a slight Tom Waits rumble is in his growl this time; a minor menace, reminding the listener of the sordid acknowledgements of “Everybody Knows” off 1988’s I’m Your Man album. A play on the rigours of old age in the base refrain “tell me again”, this song is musically reminiscent of “Dance Me to the End of Love” and in fact could almost be a sequel to it, told from the limits of love at the height of old age. You get the slight feeling that Leonard could throw together any pair of binary oppositions (day/night, love/hate) with a dash of religious imagery and a pinch of profanity, and it would be par for the course for him; however, it is a formula which has become his staple, and to be honest, it is yet to fail him.
“Show Me the Place”
Once again, metaphysics, faith, devotion and a humorous old man each asks politely for our attention in this beautiful ballad, which musically reminds this listener of the last stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve (perhaps the tune is a little like a combination of “Fairy Tale of New York” and “Auld Lang Syne”, but that could be just me). In this track, his voice is one fracture away from breaking all together, making this humble little number all the more beautiful.
“Show Me the Place”
In “Tower of Song”, Cohen quipped, “I was born like this, I had no choice/ I was born with the gift of a golden voice”. This is sometimes taken to be a joke, a playful swipe at his own singing abilities, but no longer. The gold standard is set. Let Leonard Cohen’s sine wave be printed on every bar in Fort Knox.
I would not be surprised to see Bob Dylan performing this song live in the near future. It’s almost as if Len were somehow channelling Bob while writing this. I wonder if the same thing could happen in reverse, and what the result would be? This is possibly the standout track of the album; it swaggers around with righteous attitude and controlled abandon, while lyrically kicking ass (for want of a better phrase). After “Show Me the Place”, I genuinely did not see this one coming. Good on ya, Len; not much more can be said. Genuinely awesome.
This track showcases Len’s voice at the height of its seductive powers. Who knew gravel could melt butter? Although the album as a whole arguably features an over-abundance of synthesisers, this is the one track which really benefits from it. Reminds this listener of something from Tom Waits’s Blue Valentine album, which can only be a good thing.
“Crazy to Love You”
It’s nice to hear the old Spanish guitar return on this one. This song hearkens back to 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony; in terms of tone and lyrical content, it reminds me of songs such as “A Singer Must Die” and “I Tried to Leave You”. Additionally, the reference to “the tower [of song]” makes this old fan smile, as does the use of the word ‘crazy’ as a noun (not enough people do that these days). Lyrically and acoustically dexterous, this song is another reason why we should all be glad that Leonard is still with us.
There is another ‘end of year’ vibe on this song, although I’m not sure if it’s just me imagining that. The juxtaposition of Len’s gravelled tones and his (almost too sweet to bear) angelic choir is most prominent on this track. I admire the way that the first two verses are not sung by the man himself, but by his feathered entourage; it reveals the transcendence of his work, showing that long after his demise, his songs will be sung by everyone, figures of beauty and those oppressed by them alike.
That being said, there is something a little too tawdry in the message of this song for my liking. Len has the (enviable) ability to string any combination of words along the lines of ‘solitude’, ‘mercy’, ‘longing’, ‘spirit’, ‘heart’, ‘body’, ‘mind’, ‘darkness’, ‘altar’, ‘love’ and ‘light’ together, and create another piece that fits neatly within the canon of his work. However, aside from the very tender production on this song (it does feel wonderful) and a few cracking lines (“Behold the gates of mercy/ In arbitrary space” and “An undivided love/ The heart beneath is teaching / To the broken heart above”), this little number pales due to a sheer lack of boldness in comparison to some of this great master’s other works.
This is my least favourite song on the album. I’m sorry to be an arse about this, but banjos just don’t float. Sorry Len, you lost me on this one. It is a fun little track in its own way, but one which I will not be adding to my mental Cohen repository.
This is a really lovely song, but the lyrics nag at me a little. I love the idea of “The wind in the trees is talking in tongues” – it’s as great a throwaway line as they come, and the shared delivery of the chorus with his angel choir is delightful – however, “The mouse ate the crumb/ Then the cat ate the crust/Now they’ve fallen in love/ And they’re talking in tongues” kind of falls on its face. Musically it’s very enjoyable, the Spanish guitar, gentle mouth-harp, lazy bass line, idle synth and unobtrusive drum beat conjuring images of an afternoon spent snoozing quietly in a rocking chair on a porch somewhere in the midday heat of the world. Not his best effort ever, but greatly enjoyable nonetheless
The parting shot of the album reminds us why Mr Cohen is king. This song takes the Cohen formula which I mentioned (somewhat derisively) earlier, and demonstrates how and why it beats the hell out of anything anyone else has got. Lyrically, this song is almost flawless; up to and including the first chorus, there are some of the finest lines of Cohentry in recent memory:
“We find ourselves on different sides
Of a line nobody drew
Though it all may be one in the higher eye
Down here where we live it is two
I to my side call the meek and the mild
You to your side call the Word
By virtue of suffering I claim to have won
You claim to have never been heard
Both of us say there are laws to obey
But frankly I don’t like your tone
You want to change the way I make love
I want to leave it alone”
And with that, what else can be said?
With Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen humbly demonstrates that his life in art is far from over. Whether this is his last musical effort before he leaves us mortals to commune with the spirit eternal, or if it is just the beginning of a new stage in his career, Old Ideas will be celebrated for years to come as a beautiful addition to the canon of his works. In many ways, Cohen has confronted and quieted the howlings of his youth on this album, showing a world which has often misunderstood him that, as an old man, he is finally settled with the notion of himself; and what’s more, this revelation is delivered with the most extraordinary grace.
G-d bless you, Master Cohen, for you have blessed us.