Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas
Leonard Cohen has always been a poet first and a singer second, a man with a focus on lyrical content and construction far more than on delivery. This has become even truer over the last decade, when Cohen has for the most part completely forsaken singing for a form of melodic speech that conveys his meaning and his melancholy without forcing him to strain enough to actually sing. Most of the singing on Old Ideas is handled by back-up singers, who sound gospellic and spiritual when deployed correctly and just a bit tacky when over-used. Perhaps Cohen feared that his own sparse poetry might sound barren without some vocal instrumentation; on that point I'm not sure I agree, but I appreciate the sentiment never the less.
Old Ideas is Cohen's first album of new material since 2004's Dear Heather (which was, for a time, also titled Old Ideas), and the album is aptly named. The tracks here are ruminations on the concerns that have motivated Cohen throughout his over 4 decades as a musician: God, love, sex and the way those three things might combine to lessen the pain of existence even slightly. Cohen is, in his own words, a seeker of truth, enlightenment, and rapture, on a journey that has taken him from Judaism, through Scientology, Buddhism, LSD, and a variety of other ways of life and vices (women not the least among them). Cohen has always spun songs like a bit of a prophet, a wise man telling personal tales as gateways to the universal, but on Old Ideas he seems to start from a more general place in his effort to examine widespread truths. The album's opening track, "Going Home" is nothing less than a conversation between Cohen and God, who wants to talk to Leonard about the way he spends his time. In God's view, it seems, Cohen spends too much time on love songs and ballads of defeat, and too little time preaching God's message. In his own eyes, Cohen believes that God sees him as little more than "a lazy bastard living in a suit."
The music here is stark and sparse, often little more than a keyboard or a guitar sounding softly through the silence, Leonard's silky, wizened voice, and the back-up singers there to shelter those who might otherwise get lost in the bleak, early dawn these songs recollect. The album is at its best on the mournful, regret-filled "Show Me The Place," where Cohen seems to be getting at the collective pain we inflict upon each other and the human weakness that allows cruelty to propogate. He asks us to "show me the place where the suffering began," and he confesses "there were chains, so I hastened to behave, there were chains so I loved you like a slave."
Cohen doesn't have any more answers now than when he first began, or at least not ones that satisfy him. But in those dark, early hours when it doesn't seem silly to question whether dawn will come, the questions that have always gnawed at him seem to cohere and he is left in a beautiful, quiet state of complacent contemplation. The ideas may not be new, but the approach is ever evolving, and the answers, while they may not be complete, sound like those that have been carefully crafted over decades: deep, ponderous, beautifully frail and searching, always searching for an answer.