Time-Out Review: Old Ideas by Leonard Cohen

(Every once in a while, CK takes a time out from counting down old songs to concentrate on a new release.)

There is refreshing humility and honesty embedded in the title of Leonard Cohen’s newest album. After all, the content of Old Ideas, Cohen’s 12th solo LP and first since 2004’s Dear Heather, is no different from the stuff he’s been talking about for the last 45 years in his music, and even further back from that in his poetry.

The mysteries are intact and unsolvable: How do you reconcile love with desire, and how do you reconcile both of those with the idea of a higher power? How do you live life to the fullest when you’re faced with the knowledge of certain death?  Is there any such thing as the truth, or is it just a perversion of the overarching lie? Much like there are only so many notes on the piano, Cohen’s position is that these topics are always what will interest and confound us the most, no matter the prevalent current events of the day.

In no way does that mean Old Ideas is derivative or stale. As a matter of fact, this is Cohen at the top of his game, as wry and clever as ever even as the conundrums he faces get increasingly profound. His nimble wordplay is more colloquial than in the past, and yet it is assembled in such a way as to remain endlessly insightful. In short, they don’t write ’em like this anymore.

Old Ideas starts off with “Going Home.” In the verses, Cohen tales the role of God, who admonishes Leonard, a “lazy bastard living in a suit”, for trying to solve life’s mysteries in his songs instead of simple rolling with God’s plan. In the chorus, Cohen takes the reins back, singing about “going home,” wherever that may be, with total peace of mind and nary a regret.

Elsewhere, Cohen continues his long-running dialog with the fairer sex. “Crazy To Love You” plumbs the depths of a broken relationship with typical eloquence, while “Lullaby” is just what its title claims to be without any of the cloying cuteness it implies. The 77-year old master also wraps his fathoms-deep voice around the blues on “Darkness” and “Different Sides.”

Cohen puts that voice front and center for most of the record, using his old trick of adding heavenly female backing vocals for as stark a contrast as possible. The music is spare, just simple backing with an occasional horn or harmonica here and there for brief interludes. Still, Cohen’s melodic sense, helped by collaborator Patrick Leonard on a few songs, has never been finer.

Another plus here is that Cohen, who has never been the best album artist, has taken care to make sure the album flows better than just a random collection of songs. Or maybe he has just narrowed his focus so much that the album sounds more consistent than many of his recent ones. Whatever the case, it makes for one of the most cohesive discs in his career.

On “Show Me The Place,” Cohen unfurls a lovely gospel-tinged number that goes down as one of the finest efforts in his sterling career. Setting aside his trademark cool, he is penitent before someone, maybe a God, maybe a former lover, as he sings, “Show me the place where the suffering began.” It’s a startling moment of vulnerability, as the narrator, haunted by his mistakes and threatened by his mortality, seeks out some fragment of innocence and grace.

It’s unlikely that his request will be answered, but that just means that he’ll keep questing. Leonard Cohen might think these are Old Ideas, but, when presented by such a gifted songwriter, they’re downright revelatory. 

RATING:  8.5 out of 10

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