Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas – Columbia/Sony Music

Old Ideas like spirituality, desire, mortality and acceptance.

Published on May 7, 2012

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas – Columbia/Sony Music

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas – Columbia/Sony Music 88697 98671 2, 41:21 [1/31/12] *****:

(Leonard Cohen – lead vocals, guitar; Roscoe Beck – bass (track 4); Jordan Charnofsky – guitar; Rafael Bernardo Gayol – drums (track 4); Dana Glover – vocals, vocal arrangements (tracks 1, 5, 7, 10); Robert Korda – violin (track 2); Neil Larsen – Hammond B3 organ, piano, synth bass, percussion (track 10), cornet (track 8), keyboards (track 4); Bob Metzger – guitar (track 4); Sharon Robinson – vocals, vocal arrangements (tracks 2, 4, 8, 9), synth bass (tracks 2, 9); Ed Sanders – backing vocals, vocal arrangements, guitar (track 9); Bela Santelli – violin (tracks 1, 3, 7); Dino Soldo – horns (track 4), all instruments except cornet (track 8); Chris Wabich – drums; Jennifer Warnes – vocals, vocal arrangements (track 3); The Webb Sisters – backing vocals (track 4); Javier Mas – archilaud (track 4))

Old Ideas is Leonard Cohen’s 12th studio album and is the first new material he has recorded in eight years. A lot occurred during the time leading up to this year, including world tours, a resurgence and a rediscovery of Cohen’s earlier work, loss of money from unscrupulous associates and a larger fan base of new and returning audience members who have made Cohen more popular than at any point in his storied career. Cohen’s new ten-track, 41-minute record follows a path similar to his previous effort, 2004’s Dear Heather. Like that project, Cohen shares writing duties with others (half the cuts are collaborations) and also trusted his bandmates and fellow musicians to arrange or create some of the sparsely produced material. Lyrically, Cohen continues to mine the fertile themes he has stoked since his introductory full-length, 1967’s The Songs of Leonard Cohen, including religion and faith, friendship and desire, acceptance and conflict. Throughout Old Ideas, Cohen’s vocals show a deeper baritone: although he’s lost some range, he uses his voice to heighten and personalize his music. Old Ideas has been released as a compact disc, a digital download, 180-gram vinyl, and a collector’s bundle featuring the album and a limited edition lithograph of Cohen’s artwork. This review refers to the CD version.

One of the things which mark Cohen as a compelling performer is the ageless nature of his compositions. He has rarely relied on au-current production styles and since the 1980s has peppered his songs with a dark humor which fits his growing stature as a respected songwriter of intelligence, compassion and experience. That sense of an opaque witticism mixed with individualized reflection flows through the opener, “Going Home,” where Cohen addresses himself 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; but he does say what I tell him, even though it isn’t welcome; he just doesn’t have the freedom to refuse.” While Cohen sing-speaks about being nothing more than a “brief elaboration,” soft electric keyboards are offset by a female backing chorus, acoustic piano and Bela Santelli’s atmospheric violin. That cutting wit is also applied to “Darkness,” where Cohen blithely questions his fate: “I caught the darkness, drinking from your cup. I said, ‘Is this contagious?’ You said, ‘Just drink it up.’” The arrangement harkens back to pre-1950s rhythm and blues and likeminded gospel, and is reinforced by Southern-tinged horns, The Webb Sisters’ soulful backing vocals and Neil Larson’s Memphis-mannered keyboards, which all rise and ebb in the mix. The slightly funky instrumental undercurrent furnishes earthy support to Cohen’s spectral lyrics about a past which has slipped away, his uncertain present and an overcast future. The itch and pitch of lust courses through the closing cut, the mid-tempo and somewhat playful “Different Sides,” where Cohen avers to his chosen partner, “You want to live where the suffering is, I want to get out of town,” and then implores, “Come on, baby, give me a kiss, stop writing everything down.”

Healing and closure, whether welcome or not, splice through several tracks. The minor-key “Amen” features an informal quirky rhythm speckled by Robert Korda’s gypsy-esque violin, a lonely banjo, delicate percussion and a forlorn trumpet. For over seven minutes, Cohen posits and pleads for love, physical and spiritual, but makes it clear such ambitions are often only attained when the seeker and the pursued have “seen through the horror,” figuratively and/or in reality. Those sentiments are echoed during the quietly moving “Show Me the Place,” which uses religious imagery and a psalm-like arrangement. Cohen does not ask for forgiveness before his demise, but instead makes an appeal for a greater understanding of life’s mystery before the darkness closes in. Penitence and the settling of the soul permeate another hymn-like composition, “Come Healing,” which is not preachy but does have a theological position perfected by Cohen’s repetitive poetics.

Cohen has a way of simplifying while strengthening, where recurring words and restated musical themes add impact. Few others could give an acuter connotation to straightforward text such as “There’s something that I’m watching, means a lot to me, it’s a broken banjo bobbing on the dark infested sea,” which is the essence of the countrified “Banjo.” New Orleans-styled horns provide a hint of Hurricane Katrina’s disaster and aftermath, but Cohen does not directly affirm what the image of waterlogged strings really implies. He utilizes a similar strategy during the night-closing “Lullaby,” honed by dry harmonica, lightly strummed guitars and unassuming backing vocals. Old Ideas is filled with consciousness and sensitivity, both hallmarks of Cohen’s prose, poetry and songwriting. In his hands and with his weathered voice, Cohen proves that while his ideas may be come from someone who is older, they are not time-worn or overused, and indeed say more with less.

TrackList: Going Home; Amen; Show Me the Place; Darkness; Anyhow; Crazy to Love You; Come Healing; Banjo; Lullaby; Different Sides.

—Doug Simpson




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