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. Three of its gentlest and most melodic tracks, “Suzanne”, “Sisters of Mercy”, and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”, became standards. But most of the record was steeped in the unforgiving religiosity of the Old Testament and saturated by the pain of unsatisfied lust, providing a Winter of Our Discontent counterpoint to the Summer of Love. That bleak path is the one Cohen has followed for the last 40-plus years, though as he memorably put it in 1992’s “Anthem”, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
The aptly-titled Old Ideas, the 77-year-old Cohen’s 12th studio album and his first in more than seven years, is another trip down that familiar road, albeit one lightened considerably by the wry humor that has become one of the latter-day Cohen’s trademarks. Recorded in the wake of his wildly successful, two-and-a-half year world tour of 2008-2010, it is full of echoes of Cohen’s past work, both lyrically and melodically. But unlike his tour, which featured a large band and lush arrangements designed to celebrate the significance of his past work, the new album is a willfully modest affair, its tracks stripped to their most basic elements: a synthesized keyboard and drum machine here, an acoustic guitar or violin there, meticulously arranged female voices everywhere as a counterpoint to Cohen’s own increasingly cavernous growl.
The opening track, “Going Home”, is a neat piece of self-parody in which Cohen gives his creator all the best lines: “I love to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit / But he does say what I tell him / Even though it isn’t welcome / He just doesn’t have the freedom to refuse.” So much for self-determination, or Cohen’s much-vaunted Judeo-Buddhist wisdom. The song’s sentiments recall “Tower of Song”, from the 1988 album I’m Your Man, in which Cohen likewise denied credit for his gifts: “I was born like this, I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” In both cases, the portrait is instantly recognizable and self-deprecatingly funny, but the songs have their serious sides too: the “Tower of Song”, after all, is a songwriter’s purgatory, and “Going Home” is the final voyage that every septuagenarian must anticipate.
(Cohen’s musical collaborator on “Going Home” and several other songs is Patrick Leonard, best known as Madonna’s frequent producer and co-writer on songs such as “Live to Tell” and “Like a Prayer”. Having scoured the tracks repeatedly for clues, I can report that the Material Girl’s influence is nowhere to be found on Old Ideas.)
Little echoes of Cohen’s past work, or old ideas, are everywhere. The second song, “Amen”, borrows its melody from I’m Your Man’s title track, and sounds like a minor-key sequel to the earlier song. The dusky cocktail jazz of “Anyhow” recalls the likewise electric piano-driven “The Smokey Life” from 1979’s Recent Songs. “Crazy to Love You”, a tale of romantic desperation that features Cohen’s most delicate vocal supported by nothing but his own familiar acoustic guitar, would have fit nicely on 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. And the gentle “Lullaby” offers some of the same healing comforts as “Anthem”.
All of which is not to say that Cohen has nothing new to say. Every track adds fresh shades of emotion and insight to his body of work. This is never more clear than on “Show Me the Place”, which revisits the emotional landscape of one of Cohen’s most magnificent songs, “If It Be Your Will”, from 1984’s Various Positions. Both “Show Me the Place” and “If It Be Your Will” are prayers of supplication, and feature Cohen’s gravelly, earthbound vocals counterpointed by Jennifer Warnes’ soaring, ethereal harmonies. For anyone familiar with the earlier song, the new one sounds instantly familiar. But if the themes, tempos, and vocals are similar, each has its own lovely melody and unique imagery, and is unforgettable in its own right. Indeed, both belong alongside Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” on the short-list of the most beautiful spirituals in modern popular music.
While “Show Me the Place” would have been the obvious song with which to end Old Ideas, as “If It Be Your Will” ended Various Positions, Cohen instead put it in the album’s third slot, and has chosen an entirely different sort of song for his finale. “Different Sides” is a lament to his own dual nature: on one side of the mirror, a weak, frightened escapist; on the other, a spiritualist drawn to the accountability of “the Word”. “You want to live where the suffering is / I want to get out of town / Come on, baby, give me a kiss / Stop writing everything down / Both of us say there are laws to obey / Yeah, but frankly I don’t like your tone / You want to change the way I make love / But I want to leave it alone.” Sung against a martial rhythm, it suggests struggle rather than the surrender of the rest of the songs in this collection. Cohen has already said he plans to return to the road for another tour, and that he has another album’s worth of material ready to release. With that in mind, it’s good to know the old boy still has some fight left in him. Who knows, maybe the new album will be called New Ideas, and will lead down a path that neither Cohen nor his audience anticipates.