Some may have hoped or dared to expect optimistic transfiguration from Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen’s first studio release in eight years. But as Cohen confesses on the cover of the album, the ideas are not of a novel fabric. We hear him sing the same sorrowful notes of enduring life, of love – broken and mending, home. As Cohen’s ideas have aged, so has he. At seventy-seven years old, he spins his stories with a certain depth and urgency – as if time is running out to transmit all the tales of coming and going, beginnings and ends out into cosmic void… or else, not so cosmic. Perhaps our hero hopes that his learnings will not fall on deaf ears.
Cohen is a Jewish, ordained Buddhist monk who has been in mountains in the last few years. He shaved and traded his robes for a suit and a pair of shades to tour and put into notes and lyrics his life pursuit and wrestle for peace. On his last tour, Cohen performed a sundry of his old songs with new orchestral and sweeping arrangements. On Old Ideas, like many of his other studio albums, Cohen paints with a palette of simple melodies and instrumentation.
Old Ideas is reminiscent of Gospel and blues. Cohen’s deep, round voice is placed at the forefront of each song, his rasping and whispering so close to the microphone that the intimacy almost makes you uncomfortable. The uncluttered musical setting of the songs thrust the lyrics of each song forward, making the struggle behind the words unavoidable and stark. “I’ve got no future, I know my days are few,” he sings with the memorable brass riff on “The Darkness.” “I thought the past would last me, but the darkness got that too.”
Cohen does not search for the punchline in the long lines of gloom. He will either make one or deal with the absence of one. Songs of anguish and despair suffer from overpopulation, but what distinguishes Cohen from the others is the sheer depth of perspective, insight, and compassion that he has for the suffering of an individual. In the song “Amen,” you can hear him looking for a moment’s peace in the sad revelation of knowing there is no one to blame but himself for his scars.
If there was one reservation to be voiced, it would be for the fact that his songs have walked the well-worn path of sadness before, and a few of the songs on Old Ideas don’t travel far, making them seem weak in the dust of its predecessors. But this is Leonard Cohen. Anywhere one lends his or her ear, a magnificent breadth is found. “Show Me the Place,” with its ambient organ, smooth piano riff, and equally smooth vocal counterpart, makes one want to slowly shift into the fetal position and try to grasp the story behind the words.
Lessons? Do not live in your past. Do not live in your future. The witty bleakness of Old Ideas leaves one nostalgic and grasping for hope. Be cautious that it doesn’t thieve you of your day’s joy. This isn’t Cohen at his best, but it certainly gets close. He has declared himself lazy and filthy and unable. He has declared the same things before. Neither celebratory nor stricken, Leonard Cohen continues.