The question of where the world will be without Leonard Cohen is not really one that anyone who loves his music wants to ask, and yet it’s answered in a fashion on the 77-year-old’s 12th studio album, the aptly- and poignantly-titled Old Ideas. It’s an album that speaks of echoes and imprints, off the power of the crafted word and of the idea of the artist as a vessel designed to reveal a higher truth, in some small part outside his own understanding and sensibilities. It is, in many ways, the ideas that last.
Of course, this is an album that may not have happened at all had Cohen not come financially unstuck in the mid-2000s (when it was revealed his former manager had put paid his retirement plans), and so now we have the artist as an old man forced to push on to pay his bills.
An ordained Buddhist who has never turned his back on his Judaism, religion, death and spirituality have always been central themes in Cohen’s work – along with love, depression, lust, regret and betrayal – but it’s difficult not to focus on what are surely musings on mortality, especially framed as they are in hymnal structures. In the opening track, “Going Home“, Cohen assumes the voice of a ‘creator’ or some sort of higher observer of his life’s deeds.
I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit
But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He will never have the freedom
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
It’s a thrilling, epic poem that speaks simply about the cycle of existence and the mark that the individual leaves on the world before ‘going home’, wherever that may be. And while there may be many Cohen albums after this one – let’s hope – there’s a finality in the acceptance of one’s insignificance in the grand scheme of things, even if Cohen’s life’s work guarantees a kind of immortality.
There are old ideas recycled in more prosaic form: the lazy swing of “Amen” recalls “I’m Your Man” (and provides a ‘so be it’ to the yearning lust enshrined in Hallelujah.) A sweet chorus of female voices carry the gospel-tinged “Come Healing” before Cohen’s somewhat incongruously gruff vocal entrance, which depending on your views on Cohen is either a delight or a hideous aural parody.
Musically it’s a beautifully sparse record rooted in blues-folk (“Crazy to Love You“) and gospel (“Show Me the Place“) and gently embellished by horns, female voices and the odd synth part.
There may be old ideas on this record, but it feels like a different chapter.
Old Ideas is released on Columbia (30 Jan 2012)