I’m a Leonard Cohen fan, the kind that goes to the Arts Editor and says, “Nives! Nives! Have you heard ‘The Traitor’ off Recent Songs? Or what about ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’? YOU NEED TO HEAR IT!” So when Cohen busted out his 12th album, our perspicacious editor obliged me by asking me to review it. I thought long and hard for about two seconds and then agreed.
It’s true that after 2004’s Dear Heather, which is less of an album and more of a poetry reading, I wondered whether Cohen’s imagination had finally dried up. On listening to Old Ideas, I have good news: the ideas may be old, but Cohen’s 12th album feels new. It’s hard on the first listen to pick out exactly what it is. It’s the same cool beat, jazz organ, piano, low sweet violin, vivid guitar, women’s choir, etc., and the waltz-tempo songs still predominate. It could be that he’s experimenting a little more with his vocal range after having plunged an octave or two, or it could be the variety of producers, a couple of whom even have cowriter credits on some songs.
It’s 10 songs at a refreshing 40 minutes. The first and last tracks, “Going Home” and “Different Sides” respectively, are well chosen for their positions, since they’re also my favourites. The first one is a pretty new sight in his lyrics: he casts himself as a humble, misguided servant of some divine being that’s been behind his music the whole time. It’s a nice change from showing off his cleverness in favour of stepping down so some higher being can take the stage. (I don’t know about you, but personally, I like his pseudo-religious songs—of which “Show Me the Place” is both the best on this album and one of the best in his career—for the light they put the world in. Whatever you believe, it’s hard not to call them beautiful thoughts.) The album closer is the good old Cohenesque romantic dialogue, though to read the lyrics you’d think the music would sound much darker, which has an interesting effect. The contrast of these particular backup vocals gives the impression that Cohen’s given the woman more of a chance to reply than he usually does.
Most of the other songs, though a great listen, are a little more forgettable. “Amen” and “Darkness” are pretty lyrically dull (not a good place to be for Cohen); “Crazy to Love You” strongly resembles his early work with its ballad style and its sparse instrumentation; “Anyhow” is more typical Cohen poetry. The chorus on “Come Healing” is nice in that it proves that his melodies are not just reminiscent of beauty but actually beautiful, in the proper octave. Though not many of the songs are likely to make you immediately hit repeat, they do each have a certain value. (Except “Darkness”. It’s really lame.)
So, yeah. It’s good. Hey, it’s hard to not sound like I’m biased when it’s an artist whose work has overtly or subtly dominated the music scene for so long, so do bear with me. Old Ideas is a great album, even for Cohen, intertwining the (by now grandfatherly) moods of his old albums with new thoughts, or maybe the other way around. Whatever it is, it’s working.