Sunday, 5 February 2012

Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas (Album Review 2012)

There is a common misconception that some musicians are beyond criticism. One only has to listen to the latest Lou Reed/Metallica train crash (Lulu, 2011) to know that isn’t true. And it‘s all too easy to praise so called ‘legends’ and overuse the word ‘genius’ when their legacy has outlived their present achievements (McCartney and Dylan being two obvious examples).  So it is with a certain amount of trepidation that Leonard Cohen’s twelfth album is received; kept at arms-length rather than embraced, admired from distance and not approached, talked about in hushed-tones instead of praised. The man who gave the world Suzanne, Hallelujah and First We Take Manhattan has transcended genres and trends throughout his half-century career, while remaining a superb songwriter and poet, as Old Ideas is an immediately accessible, charming and loveable collection of memories.

Old Ideas opens with the delicate autobiographical musings of Going Home. Cohen’s baritone rasp, in which he describes himself as a ‘lazy bastard living in a suit’, is offset by angelic backing vocals. This is an intriguing self-examination leading into the seven and a half minute masterpiece of Amen. Again the juxtaposition of Cohen’s well-trodden gravel-road vocals and sweet female backing is simply sublime. ‘Tell me again when I’m clean and I’m sober; Tell me again when I’ve seen through the horror”, he sings before asking: “Tell me that you’ll love me then…?”. A gorgeous combined brass/string instrumental breaks up the song into two acts before a second brings a mesmerising finale. 

Show Me The Place is a timeless piano-led ballad of faith, devotion and incarceration (metaphoric or otherwise), with a deep hymnal quality. The final two lines are powerful and poignant: “Show me the place, where the word became a man; Show me the place where the suffering began”. The best song on Old Ideas is recent single Darkness, a wonderful piece of tongue-in-cheek Faustian blues – bringing together pulsating organ, choral vocals, acoustic guitar and Cohen’s inner monologue, in one astonishing arrangement. Underpinning the song is the central message of temptation and doubt.

This is followed by Anyhow, a love song with a wicked sense of humour: “I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less? I’ve used up all my chances and you’ll never take me back; but there ain’t no harm in asking, could you cut me one more slack?”, is probably the best songwriting on the album. The last minute or so is a superb summary of the story in which blame is afforded to both sides. Crazy To Love You (co-written with Anjani Thomas) is the second half of the love song. Cohen lifts his vocal from the depths to add lightness to an otherwise melancholy dirge. “Crazy has places to hide in, that are deeper than any goodbye” is another wonderful line.

Many of Leonard Cohen’s songs have been compared to ‘hymns’ is both structure and content. None more so on Old Ideas than the magnificent Come Healing that is as understated as it is uplifting. Again, the affecting combination of vocals and music is seemingly effortless. Into the last few songs, Banjo is a truly light-hearted moment, in which Cohen tells the story of an old instrument and its supposed history. Likewise, the country-esque harmonica of Lullaby is pure whimsy and a well executed, if twee, distraction.

Old Ideas closes with the emotionally heavy Different Sides – a relationship song played out like an uneasy therapy session. Musically the arrangement is a thick soup of ideas and the song fades through the vocal, bringing the album to a strange wilting finale. It is as if Old Ideas is missing the last song. Maybe this is the point – leave them wanting more, if you have more to give.

Now in his seventies, Leonard Cohen sounds as engaging and as relevant as ever. The elder statesman to Nick Cave and Tom Waits, and now with a voice somewhere between the two that continues to reveal his advanced years, he delivers his best album in decades. Filled with poetic wit, dry humour, light touches and dark corners, Old Ideas is touching, funny and brilliant. Cohen hasn’t always made the best choices but this finds the perfect balance of arrangements and delivery – and the contribution from his backing singers can’t be praised highly enough. Is any musician beyond criticism? No, but Leonard Cohen remains the exception that proves the rule.
-- CS

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