Review: Leonard Cohen's 'Old Ideas' reads better than it sounds
Songwriter's first album in eight years is almost too perfect
For fans of Leonard Cohen’s songwriting, there are plenty of reasons to love “Old Ideas.” But for those eager for a great-sounding Leonard Cohen album, prepare for some disappointment.
At 77, the Canadian songsmith remains one of the most gifted lyricists and folk poets in pop music history. It’s taken eight years for this new studio release, its sites set on eternal bedfellows sex and death, and it appears the bard is feeling his age advance.
“I love to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard / Living in a suit,” he jokes in the first lines of album opener “Going Home,” an apparent start to that home-bound journey. He published all the lines to the song in the pages of The New Yorker – not Rolling Stone or the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame website – like managing his own expectations.
Then later on “Crazy to Love You,” the old joker explains the result of this inward-looking: “Sometimes I’d head for the highway / I’m old and the mirrors don’t lie… I’m tired of choosing desire / I been saved by a blessed fatigue.” Each lethargic, deep-burrowed baritone note is sung with Cohen’s signature deadpanning weariness, with barely any regard to the purity of the key and more to the elegiac gravity of his words. It’s on this song its instrumental equivalent answers back: he allows in his out-of-tune guitar buzz all over the frets.
But for the rest of the album, it’s a disappointing display of musicianship over and over, not because his backers aren’t able performers or very good at their instruments. In fact, Cohen’s choirs of angels – another theme repeated throughout Cohen’s album history – are positively perfect singers. That’s the problem. It’s like pouring sugar into bitter tea, over and over, making an easy-listening crutch for all the songwriter’s hunched posturing.
Like I said in my initial review of “Darkness,” those wide-eyed vocalists should have maybe been replaced by a raging National guitar or a crew of saxes for the call-and-response. The harmonica of campy “Lullaby” could have been a church organ. Half of heart-stopping “Amen” sounds like it was made on a Casio keyboard.
That’s another thing. For all the full-frontal brutality that is Cohen’s voice, his musings on the after-life in horn-like whispers, almost every mix actively avoids a live mix and happy accidents, with a lot of electronic instruments calibrated to clean-up this “naked and filthy” series.
Pay extra attention to sign-off “Different Sides” and the first four tracks in this front-loaded album. Maybe even remix them – that’s what Cohen and co-producers Patrick Leonard and Ed Sanders should have done.