Album Review: Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas

Thank heavens these old ideas never cease to create art worth learning from.

B | 01.31.11 | Columbia | Stream | MP3 | CD

Google “Leonard” and Mr. Cohen’s name will rank only below that of Mr. Nimoy’s for top search results. Not entirely shocking considering the amount of time Trekkies spend online. He earned this cultural clout not by pandering to the masses, or even heavy-hitting producers like John Simon or Phil Spector (who once threatened him with a crossbow when he objected to his “wall of sound” techniques). Throughout his legendary career, fraught with an eroding undercurrent of paralyzing depression, myriad romances and an outstanding equity of wisdom, he’s managed to sound the same without it ever getting old.

In a recent New York Times interview, Cohen addresses every writers’ nemesis — deadlines. “You’ve got a deadline. Well, I do too: death. It tends to insert itself into our considerations,” he said with a wry smile. Legacy is an onus that must be dealt with. This album may not have even existed, along with his last two years of touring, if five million dollars of his retirement fund didn’t vanish into thin air back in 2005. Eight years after the smooth jazz schmaltz of Dear Heather, these old ideas still resonate with the timbre of a man who attributes his hollow baritone to smoking cessation.

With a withered tambourine shifting in the background to hold the beat punctuated by a homophonous mix of warbled strings and female chorus Cohen muses “I’d love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” Talk about self-deprecating sagacious humor. “Going Home” is black humor with no sugar or cream. It’s a meta-commentary on his whole artistic being. Towards the bridge we get an idea of the serenity he yearns for once he can separate his humanity from the Leonard we all adore. “Going home without my burden/Going home behind the curtain/Going home without this costume that I wore.”

That sardonic opener is followed up by the strangely beautiful Yiddish trappings of “Amen.” Not that he sings in Zionist tongue, but the off-tune plucking stuttering off in the distance, under a haunting melody, tinges it with a dated old warmth reminiscent of the Borscht Belt. We haven’t heard this lethargic hurt from him since his Songs of Love and Hate days of the early ‘70s. Spooky horns waltzing us out the back door were only icing on the cake.

I’m pretty certain that “Anyhow” features my favorite instrument of all time with the exception of the theremin — the vibraphone. Yes that same analog metallic hum heard on Led Zepellin’s “No Quarter” guides us through a brutal confession of humility and heartbreak. “I know you had to hate me/But could you hate me less?” “I’m naked and I’m filthy/And there’s sweat on my brow/Both of us are guilty anyhow.” Just a few of the poetic one-liners laced effortlessly throughout a slow and smooth joint you’d sip on with a rye martini at a deserted speakeasy.

Charlie Daniels, an old bandmate of his believe it or not, would especially dig the spectral banjo and slide guitar of the bluesy “Banjo.” Still showing a flare for the spoken word, he gracefully switches from iambic to dactyl meter with the nursery rhyme “It’s a broken-banjo-bobbin/On the dark infested sea.” Soft brushes on the drum and gliding vocal accompaniment soar through this wonderfully whimsical track.

Those listed above are the real standouts of Old Ideas and a return to form for Mr. Cohen. As for the rest they still feel more alive than anything off his last two albums, but not nearly as dynamic as anything off Future Now. Why should they be though? Shouldn’t the twilight of your life have a wistful tone? The answer is yes. Thank heavens these old ideas never cease to create art worth learning from.

Stream 'Old Ideas' in its entirety here.