By Ben Nance–
Legendary singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen is one of the most highly regarded musicians on the planet, so whenever he dishes out new material, it is considered to be something of an event. Still singing about spirituality, mortality and sexuality at the ripe age of 77, he shows no signs of dulling the teeth of his witty songwriting. While it’s unfortunate that the closest most people will come to hearing his stuff is through covers of “Hallelujah,” the fact that such a unique and poetic voice is still active in the music world is a blessing indeed.
Speaking of blessings, Cohen wastes no time getting his religion on in the opening minutes of his new album “Old Ideas.” In the soulful track “Going Home,” Cohen imagines what the big guy in the sky would say about his songs while simultaneously hinting at his own death: “A cry above the suffering/A sacrifice recovering/But that isn’t what I need him/To complete.” The song is a perfect lead-in to the slow gospel vibe of the album, with Cohen’s trademark female backup singers providing the hooks. It’s his catchiest and most satisfying opener since 1992’s “The Future.”
Things move along quite nicely in the album’s first half as Cohen shuffles through the burlesque tune of “Amen” and the gruff, locomotive “Darkness.” Once you hear the triumphant ballad “Show Me the Place,” you will be moved beyond words at how effortlessly Cohen manages to create a beautiful moment of grace using his humble baritone voice, a hymn-like song structure and angelic background vocals. In the song’s chorus, he expresses the painful burden of virtue with, “Show me the place, where you want your slave to go/Show me the place, I’ve forgotten, I don’t know.” It’s overwhelming power makes it the key track of “Old Ideas.” This kind of bare honesty is rare in modern music, which is all the more reason to treasure it.
It’s more of a mixed bag once the album approaches its halfway point and becomes less focused. The lyrics remain brilliant—“I’m tired of choosing desire/I’ve been saved by a blessed fatigue/The gates of commitment unwired/And nobody trying to leave”—however, the musical arrangements sort of feel shapeless in comparison to what came before. You’ll realize how crucial the backup singers really are when Leonard briefly decides to go solo on “Crazy to Love You.” The few weak songs that show up in the middle feel like B-sides, but the beautiful thing about a Leonard Cohen B-side is that it’s just as good, if not better, than any pop single you’re bound to hear on the radio.
The album quickly gets back on its feet, livening things up with the powerful vocal harmonies of “Come Healing” and the festive New Orleans flavor of “Banjo.” There is even a memorable lullaby track that isn’t quite what you expect it to be. It all ends on a groovy, electric organ-fueled bang with the song “Different Sides.” Despite his spiritual musings, Cohen suggests on this track that he’s not quite done being a clever devil of appetites. “Old Ideas” can feel a little top-heavy in the musical department, but it achieves greatness nonetheless. This is the album to beat in 2012.
Photos courtesy Columbia Records