To call Leonard Cohen a living legend would be to define the term. The man has a shadow that stretches across over 40 years of music history, his immaculately written lyrics providing inspiration for countless musicians. Yet here he is, 44 years after the intensely powerful Songs of Leonard Cohen, delivering material that matches the depth and power of that first solo record, covering the same tropes of mortality, sexuality, and religion, while remaining as vibrant and striking a poet as ever. Old Ideas may not have another “Hallelujah”, but it’s a mesmerizing document of the late years of a master.
With all of that history and acclaim, here Cohen is at age 77, resonating about his own failings, the dark looming at every corner. The fact that Cohen’s one-time manager made off with a good deal of money that Cohen could be living off of now instead of needing to go on a world tour is something that seems fated, a necessity to give more bleak reality for him to write beautiful lyrics about. I mean, there’s a reason his Wikipedia page includes a link to “List of people with depression.” Opening the album on “Going Home” with lines to a fictionalized self, a “lazy bastard living in a suit,” re-introduces the listener to Cohen’s world succinctly. The song proceeds to discuss the failed desire for “a manual for living with defeat,” the old man attempting to convey the necessity of a pure, personal reality.
While Cohen’s always played on the insistence of mortality, the album tremors with a sense of finality that leaves one to wonder whether this is the last batch of Cohen originals. This is certainly at least partially due to the assumption that he can’t keep doing this forever, but songs like “Amen” (which visually strikes like a conclusion to the grandeur of “Hallelujah”) with its graveyard horn solo and talk of the Lord’s vengeance strike that note too strongly to ignore.
That eye for the religious finality returns on “Show Me the Place”, Cohen taking the role of “the slave” looking for orders from above, his deeper-than-ever baritone murmuring over a lilting piano. “Come Healing” is perhaps the most blatant version, definitely the most hopeful, and the least effective, saccharine synth and female harmonies draped all over. But here Cohen asks to “see the darkness healing that tore the light apart,” his heart calling out for a Christian redemption. The song is a “penitential hymn,” a phrase that works well with much of Cohen’s catalog.
The intricate fingerpicked guitar of Cohen’s early work returns on the intro of the rollicking “Darkness”, but this too is taken under a rush of calamity, the grim smirk in Cohen’s voice recalling the darkness “drinking from your cup.” That bad boy bravado is still there, too, the man just as seductive despite nearing 80. The sardonic tone he perfected so many years ago returns so easily for a line like “I dreamed about you, baby/You were wearing half your dress/I know you have to hate me/But could you hate me less?” Album closer “Different Sides” discusses the possibility of remaining “good” in a tough world and the influence of sex in a relationship. Rounding out all of his old tropes in one go gives this album even more of its conclusive tone, his lyrical voice unified and singular.
Cohen is, first and foremost in many minds, a poet, as evidenced in his highly evocative imagery throughout, whether in the service of grim biblical apocalypse or playful sensuality. On first listen, the prostrate, lovelorn language in “Crazy to Love You” brings to mind an epic relationship, but it’s only foregrounding his own fallacy. “I had to be people I hated/I had to be no one at all,” he drolly explains, insisting on the “souvenir heartache” that brought everything together.
As such, much has been made of the poet’s musical side, especially in his shift from acoustic folk to 80’s synths, replete with glossy backing vocals. Old Ideas, however, succeeds in largely keeping the music subservient, buoyant enough to keep things moving but not distracting any attention from the lyrics, the true star of the show. The Webb Sisters are still on board with soulful harmonies behind Cohen, but their presence is nowhere near as present as on his 2009 tour.
“If the night is long, here’s my lullaby,” Cohen croons on the song of that same title, offering something to guide the listener through the night. Listeners have been relying on Cohen’s heartbroken yet grinning, world-weary yet hopeful voice to get through that night for decades, and this album should continue that for a whole new batch of souls.
Essential Tracks: “Going Home”, “Amen”
Featured artwork by Cap Blackard.