By Jemima Parker
There’s something wry, self-deprecating and utterly Leonard Cohen about the title of his new album. It’s almost a shrug that says, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. And who would want to. Old Ideas revisits all the inescapable refrains that have haunted Cohen’s poetry since the 1960s; love and regret, prayer and desire, God, sex, suffering, and the ever-revolving door between body, mind and soul. But the title also makes a dry reference to the inevitable truth that, at the age of 78, Cohen has in fact grown old. And it is perhaps this very fact that makes the album so poetic, each track steeped in quiet, smoky nostalgia, a rumination that falls somewhere between tender regret and jaded stoicism.
Old Ideas shows us an autumnal Cohen, seemingly staring down the spectre of his own mortality – in ‘Darkness‘ he sings ‘I’ve got no future / I know my days are few’. His voice, one that seems to grow deeper with every album, is cracked and husky with age, coming out in a baritone half-whispered so close to the microphone that you can almost feel his breath. It is a rumbling murmur that sometimes falters midline, as if too weary with emotion to continue, conveying with it all the sensitivity and sincerity of the poetry it describes. The music is low key and minimal, the sultry, swinging tunes bluesy and languid, moving at a sumptuously slow tempo and conjuring up some late-night dive bar on Cohen’s ‘Boogie Street‘. At the same time, there is a strong influence of gospel music, the host of female back-up vocalists (longstanding collaborator Sharon Robinson, the Webb Sisters, Jennifer Warnes), conveying a poignant and elegiac tone that seeps through all ten tracks.
The album is Cohen at perhaps his most self-reflective. The opening track, ‘Going Home‘, begins with a first person who might just be God talking about Cohen, that ‘lazy bastard living in a suit’, and his purpose in life. The songs are contemplative, the language less elaborate than former albums, poetic still, but less adorned and embellished. The rippling imagery of classics like ‘Suzanne’ is replaced by a simplicity that is both more and less beautiful, kneading the old ideas about love, religion and desire with a heady dichotomy of sardonicism and tenderness. Joe Levy of Rolling Stone magazine wrote, ‘Cohen has sought rapture anywhere and everywhere he can find it ‘ prayer, LSD, the thighs of a woman ‘ and tried to unite the spiritual and the physical.’
This is the first album that the Montreal born poet-turned-singer has released since 2004’s decidedly more upbeat Dear Heather. Often described with some variation on the word ‘morose’, Cohen’s long history of depression has permeated his work with a melancholy is both tragic and laconic. Many of his songs are rooted in real situations or people ‘ there really was a Suzanne and a Marianne ‘ and there is an authenticity with which his songs are rooted within his own life and experience. And the past few years haven’t been easy on Cohen.
Cohen had more or less retired after 2004. He stopped touring in 1993 moved up a mountain where he eventually became ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk. However, and with an almost tragic irony for one who had long tried to divorce himself, through poetry, from the material, in 2005 Cohen found himself in the middle of an ugly financial court-battle, after it became known that his long-time former manager had been siphoning off his pension fund to the extent that he was essentially broke. He was essentially forced to go back to work, launching the hugely successful tours of 2008-2010 which saw a revival of some of his oldest and greatest as well as new inspiration for the new album. Although one would never want to wish Cohen ill, it’s difficult not to in some ways appreciate the circumstances that pulled him out of his hazy twilight years and back into the spotlight.
And there you have it. The lyrics and the music of Old Ideas are whispered straight from a place of deep and resonant feeling. Tunes like ‘Show Me the Place’, ‘Going Home’ and ‘Crazy To Love You’ are Cohen at his most tender, cutting straight to the heart of the album and reminding us why he has been around for so long. Kurt Cobain penned in the song ‘Pennyroyal Tea‘, ‘Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld / so I can sigh eternally’ ‘ and it is that, the eternal sigh, that makes the old ideas of an old man, forever reclining in a garden chair in a tatty suit and fedora, ones that will remain for far longer than he will.