He is a man with a legendary music career that stretches across five decades, a natural baritone voice that flows like a conversation and volumes of heartbroken yet perennially hopeful lyrics. As he smokes a cigarette and sighs deeply, Leonard Cohen quietly assumes his role as a songwriting legend. His latest album, Old Ideas, was released on Jan. 31 and debuted at No. 1 on Nielsen SoundScan’s Top Album Chart. Already a platinum record in his native Canada, the album has now topped the official Album Sales Charts in seven different countries, taking Cohen to new creative and commercial heights.
The arrangements in Old Ideas are minimal and the instrumentals bare. Our attention is focused entirely on Cohen’s well-practiced voice and equally amazing lyrics, which transcend the emotions of love, loss, regret and religious salvation – a feat that artists half his age cannot come close to achieving. Throughout Cohen’s career, he has both defined and explained what it means to be human through highly reminiscent imagery and playing with the themes of mortality, religion and sensuality. In these 10 tracks, he is as seductive as ever, embodying the same bad boy from Songs of Leonard Cohen nearly 44 years ago. “Dreamed about you baby / You were wearing half your dress / I know you have to hate me / But could you hate me less?” Leonard’s voice, so carefully tuned over the years, is a stunning instrument in itself: It is a voice that mimics human yearning. It is powerfully honest in the way that one is compelled to listen as closely as possible.
Cohen declared bankruptcy in 2005 due to misappropriations of his retirement fund by his manager. The impact this has had on his life can be seen closely through “Different Sides,” the last song of the album. Through the song, Cohen discusses the possibility of remaining good in a difficult world, as well as how sex impacts relationships. The musician has struggled with depression throughout his life and many of his songs revolve around thoughts of suicide and despair, some darkly comical. Cohen’s late-career triumphs at the age of 77 are reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s third-act releases at 56 or the late Johnny Cash albums, both of which visit themes of mortality through a curious lens. Old Ideas is aptly named: Cohen’s favorite themes – healing, origins, home and endings – take on weight as time passes.
There’s a sense of emptiness that Cohen faces in the way that only he can – with smirking irony – as he continues to tackle dark, sometimes disturbing subject matter with uplifting hope and happiness. There is also a definite shadow that comes from accepting death, as well as hints that his life and work are coming to a close. The song “Going Home” appears to both acknowledge and embrace this fact with his habitual humor: “I love to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard / Living in a suit.” His lyrics are those of a poet, cryptic, challenging and yet easy on the ear. The twang of his guitar and the soft touch of his fingers running along the piano keys, minimal and bleak, both follow the tune of his voice, rather than the other way around.
Pay special attention to the song “Crazy to Love You”: The gentle plucking of Cohen’s acoustic guitar mirrors the softness of his message and the hardships of love. It is written in Cohen’s classic flow of spoken-word lyrics. This iteration features Cohen alone and is a return to the classic form of his previous albums, bringing nostalgia to old fans. The song is a piece of difficult confessions, of the sentiment that perhaps makes us the most human – the sentiment of love – and the temporary insanity that it forces us into. It is here that we see his naked age, where the “bad boy” persona backs off a little bit and curbs the eroticism of old that used to be so prevalent. Cohen reassures us that perhaps it is a blessing that with old age comes the calming of those desires so fervent that they drive us to irrationality.
Old Ideas is Cohen’s highest debuting album, and despite the album’s title, some of its ideas are also refreshingly new. I can only hope that we will all be able to render this creativity and passion for ourselves at 77.