Album review: Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas

By Graham Reid

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The ideas in Cohen's music may be old but they are also universal. Photo / Supplied
The ideas in Cohen's music may be old but they are also universal. Photo / Supplied

Because Leonard Cohen is 77 and has always weighed words, we should enjoy the ambiguities in this album's title. Songs about ageing, darkness, failed love, apologising to women in his past, angels scratching at the door, Biblical imagery . . . These indeed are ideas he has explored, refined, distilled and reconsidered repeatedly. And, perhaps, they are the thoughts of a man considering mortality with more immediacy than he once did.

Musically there are, if not old ideas, certainly familiar settings (breathy and melodic women's backing vocals) for his husky, sexy speak-sing baritone. And these old ideas are brought to life by old friends, among them Jennifer Warnes, the Webb Sisters, Anjani Thomas and his touring band.

There's also his familiar humour, right from the opener Going Home in which another voice says "I love to speak to Leonard . . . he's a lazy bastard living in a suit" and that droll wit turns the voice into a puppet-master for whoever Cohen might be and "he will speak these words of wisdom like a sage, a man of vision, though he knows he's really nothing but the brief elaboration of a tube".

So, old ideas? An old man's ideas? Certainly, but hardly threadbare because Cohen imbues them with an emotional resonance and convincing delivery. When he "sings" he get very close to more recent Dylan. The gently rocking Darkness has that gravitas: "I got no future, I know my days are few, the present's not that pleasant, just a lot of things to do. I thought the past would last me, but the darkness got that too". And the double negatives ("I don't smoke no cigarettes, don't drink no alcohol") are more properly from the Dylan/Springsteen workin' class man camp.

There are the metaphorical lyrics (Amen, Show Me the Place, Darkness, Come Healing, Banjo) but also songs of broken love and reflection. On Anyhow he speak-sings over lightly jazzy piano and breathy whispering women, "Have mercy on me baby, after all I did confess. I know you have to hate me, [but] could you hate me less?"

And Different Sides ("We find ourselves on different sides of a line that nobody drew") which exists at the interface of metaphor, symbolism and the personal. There are two voices, the first might or might not be a woman talking to Cohen: "I to my side call the meek and the mild, you to your side all the Word . . . you want to live where the suffering is, I want to get out of town, c'mon baby give me kiss, stop writing everything down".

Such lyrical refraction and shifting perspectives (on life and death as much as relationships) are what makes Cohen such a rare voice and lyricist. Old ideas, yes. But also the universals: love, forgiveness, the pain of life and the mystery of death.

Leonard Cohen remains a convincing witness to all these things, a reassuring voice and a firm and warm guiding hand.

Stars: 4.5/5
Verdict: As the clock counts down, the poet takes stock of his life

- TimeOut / elsewhere.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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