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Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen

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Album Review

While it's not normally a quality one associates with Leonard Cohen, he's always possessed a droll, self-effacing sense of humor. He expresses it on the opening track of Old Ideas in the third person: "I love to speak with Leonard/He's a sportsman and a shepherd/He's a lazy bastard/Living in a suit...." Have no fear, however, Cohen's topical standards, on yearning, struggle, spirituality, love, loss, lust, and mortality are all in abundance here, offered with a poet's insight. It is among Cohen's most spiritual recordings because it brings all of his familiar topics into the fold with a graceful acceptance. He's surrounded by friends on Old Ideas. Patrick Leonard, Dino Soldo, and Anjani Thomas get production and co-writing credits. Sharon Robinson, Dana Glover, Jennifer Warnes, and the Webb Sisters all appear on backing vocals. Cohen mixes up the musical forms far more than he has in the past. The loungey electronic keyboards on "Going Home" are balanced by Glover's female backing chorale, an acoustic piano, and Bela Santelli's violin. The sly, minor-key Gypsy jazz groove on "Amen" is played by a banjo, violin, and Cohen's guitar; it tempers his searing lyric, which posits the notion that the totality of love, divine or otherwise, can only truly be achieved when the object of desire has seen his worst, metaphorically and literally. "Show Me the Place" finds Cohen once again adopting the Protestant hymnal as stirringly as he did on "Halleluja" — albeit more quietly — and wedding it to his simple, direct melodic sensibility. The song is a prayer, not for redemption, but to go ever deeper into the cloud of spiritual unknowing before his demise, to discover the terrain where suffering itself is birthed. Warnes' gorgeous backing vocals, piano, guitar, and violin accompany his beneath-the-basement, cracked-leather baritone in delivering the song with conviction and vulnerability.

Cohen's live band joins him on "Darkness," where he evokes, musically, his love of both late-'40s R&B and gospel, even as he frankly discusses his own — and everyone's — entrance into the big goodnight. He also revisits the spartan sound of his early career with "Crazy to Love You," written with Thomas, on which his only accompaniment is his acoustic guitar. Here, he wrestles with an unwanted but nonetheless nagging attachment to erotic desire. "Come Healing" is another hymn, with Glover's vocals, church organ, violin, and Cohen's croaking, old-man-in-the-pew vocal; he sings with reverence: "O see the darkness yielding/That tore the light apart/Come healing of the reason/Come healing of the heart...." "Banjo" is a country-blues that gives the songwriter a chance to indulge his love for Hank Williams while reflecting on Hurricane Katrina as Soldo's New Orleans-inspired horns add a haunted effect to the tune. Cohen speaks not only for himself, but the ghosts of restless spirits wandering in his vision. "Lullabye"'s lyrics, accompanied by a high lonesome harmonica and a whispering jazz organ, counterintuitively offer a gentle comfort to the disconsolate. "Different Sides," with its slow, loopy groove, is a shuffle that addresses unresolved conflict in lust and law (spiritual and carnal), bringing Old Ideas to a close with an ironic tension. Cohen meets conflict head-on and accepts it for what it is — you can almost see him simultaneously singing sincerely while slyly winking an eye. Old Ideas is a very good Cohen album; it may be even be a great one; but that doesn't matter in the present. What does is that it bears listening to, over and over (and over) again.

Biography

Born: 21 September 1934 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

One of the most fascinating and enigmatic — if not the most successful — singer/songwriters of the late '60s, Leonard Cohen has retained an audience across four decades of music-making interrupted by various digressions into personal and creative exploration, all of which have only added to the mystique surrounding him. Second only to Bob Dylan (and perhaps Paul Simon), he commands the attention of critics and younger musicians more firmly than any other musical figure from the 1960s...
Full bio
Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen
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