Leonard Cohen’s first album in eight years, “Old Ideas,” begins with the songwriter addressing himself: “I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard/Living in a suit.”
Sure, eight years is a long time between LPs, but “lazy bastard” is a little rough. After all, the 77-year-old has been very productive of late; he played 247 shows on his world tour that stretched from 2008 to December of 2010, with every single set lasting for at least three hours.
And it was that monstrous world tour that inspired “Old Ideas,’ or at least inspired Cohen to get back in the studio once again.
“I kind of surprised myself,” Cohen told Rolling Stone when asked about the recording the new record. “But the inertia of the tour kept a number of us active. It isn't so easy just to stop once you've been involved in that degree of activity, so we just kept going.”
As for the album’s title, Cohen told the music magazine that it comes from the “old—you might even say unresolved—ideas that are wracking around in my brain, and the brain of the culture.”
The brain of culture is a pretty big and varied thing to try to write about, but Cohen seems to have managed to pick two universal topics of worry and wonder to explore on “Old Ideas,” and they are the heaviest duo of the bunch: Religion and Death.
Opener “Going Home,” the same song in which Cohen admonishes his own work ethic, tackles both subjects over a background of relaxed, shuffling percussion and muted electronic keyboard. Perhaps it is not Cohen talking about himself being lazy, but some higher power, who later sings of the songwriter, “He will speak these words of wisdom/Like a sage, a man of vision/Though he knows he’s really nothing/But the brief elaboration of a tube.”
Then there are the gospel choir-style background vocals, which enter near the end of “Going Home” to sing the song’s refrain without Cohen being present at all, giving special heavenly meaning to the words, “Going home/Without my burden/Going home/Behind the curtain/Going home/Without the costume/That I wore.”
None of this is particularly new for Cohen; part of what has always been fascinating about his work is the gruffness of his voice paired with the religious imagery of his lyrics. “Amen,” on which Cohen played all the parts, features vivid scenes that are equal parts tongue-in-cheek and disturbing, an effect achieved partly because of a disquieting banjo line: angels panting at the door, the blood of the lamb washing the butcher. And “Show Me the Place” has Cohen asking for help to “roll away the stone” and then to see the place “where the Word became a man.”
Whenever Cohen sings such lines, fair or not, “Hallelujah” comes to mind. It is the song in his catalog that everyone knows, and it is the song that will outlive him (and us) in the next century or so to come. In some ways, this is problematic, not because of subject matter, but because of the delivery of Cohen’s signature tune coming out of the mouths of others. How can one of the most covered songs of all time, with which each singer tries so hard to show off their pipes as to one-up the one who just went before, define for the general public the work of a guy whose personal singing range is about as wide as a mouse hole?
When Cohen sings, he does so as a sign of restraint. When Cohen sings, you need to lean in and listen closely to every word. It often feels like he is one inch away from the microphone and whispering in your ear.
So when Cohen lets it loose and his voice strains and the pitch rises, you would be wise to pay attention. “Sometimes I’d head for the highway,” Cohen croons on “Crazy to Love,” a love song with a hint of country twang. “I’m old and the mirrors don’t lie/But crazy has places to hide in/Deeper than saying goodbye.” This is Cohen at his most vulnerable on “Old Ideas.” Just him, a guitar, and a question of what it’s like to reach this point where you are “begging your crazy to quit,” but the time to move on has already come and gone.
Up until album closer “Different Sides,” “Old Ideas” stays in the shadows. Its rhythms never rise. It puts you in a trance of grumbling vocals and lush piano chords. But then the final song begins and you detect a menacing tone to Cohen's words. The keyboards stay high, but come in more frequently now, and there are actual drums playing in the background, moving us forward.
“Both of us say there are laws to obey/But frankly I don’t like your tone/You want to change the way I make love/I want to leave it alone,” Cohen sings.
What laws he is singing about? The laws of religion? The laws of society? The laws that say you will grow old and when you do, it’s going to be at times excruciating?
You decide. That’s the thing about those old, unresolved ideas Cohen was talking about. Religion and Death remain quite the puzzle, even for great songwriters.
J-Connection: Leonard Cohen is Jewish. Cohen's mother was of Lithuanian Jewish descent. Rumor has it that the songwriter has a great extra verse for the Dreidel song hidden in a notebook somewhere.