The story goes like this: Just a couple of years ago, Leonard Cohen was a septuagenarian retiree, more or less done with music, living in a Buddhist monastery in California. He stopped touring in 1993, and his last studio album, Dear Heather, came out in 2004. Cohen had done plenty in his life, releasing at least four albums that are in the dorm-room canon for anyone getting serious about loving music and, along with Serge Gainsbourg, defining a sophisticated-sensualist persona that’s become one of rock’s great archetypes. He’d more than earned the chance to spend the rest of his life in quiet meditation. But while he was living in that monastery, a former manager made off with all of his money, and he had to return to the road in 2009 in order to remain financially solvent. The people who saw those shows said rapturous things about them. Eventually, a court awarded Cohen $9.5 million, and I don’t know if he’s collected yet. But either way, he’s suddenly returned to the business of making music. And so maybe we have that crooked manager to thank for the existence of Old Ideas, Cohen’s lovely, elegiac sprawl of a new album.
Cohen was a full-grown man and an acclaimed writer before he got into the music game, and his unflappable presence has always carried a certain gravity on record. Consider, for example, the way he sold the horrors-of-war narrative of “The Partisan,” an old French Resistance song that Cohen translated into English on his 1969 album Songs From A Room. The stakes on that song couldn’t be more urgent, but Cohen intoned them in a gravelly deadpan sing-speak that at times became a straight-up sigh. He sounded bored, and that pushed the song further toward the uncanny. With age, that presence has only increased. At this point, his voice is a sandpaper whisper, one that only nods toward melody. And that’s fine, since his timing is impeccable and every one of his words feels weighted with meaning.
When he’s filling out his tax returns, Cohen probably writes “poet” as his occupation, and The New Yorker ran the lyrics of the Old Ideas opener “Going Home” as pure poetry. And as always, his lyrics are elliptical and tough to parse. (Opening lines: “I’d like to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.”) But as a sheer aesthetic experience, they work.
The instrumentation on the album is bleak and minimal, not far removed from the sort of thing that’s been on every Bob Dylan album since Time Out Of Mind. On different songs, we hear refracted bits of blues or doo-wop or gypsy music. But it’s always done through this smooth, relaxed filter, and Cohen always sounds like he’s reclined in that chair on the album cover. But even with Cohen doing less actual singing that he’s done in the past, there’s a melodic grace and confidence to these songs. And so the best way to describe Old Ideas might be this: It’s a late-period Tom Waits album, only with the junkyard hollering removed completely and only the simple, elegant lullabies remaining. It’s a deeply soothing piece of work, one that does Cohen’s long legacy proud.
“Show Me The Place”: