Given that his most famous, and most covered song, Hallelujah took two years and 80 potential verses to get right it’s no wonder that Leonard Cohen describes what he does as the “sacred mechanics of song writing.” On Old Ideas, his first album in eight years and only his twelfth since 1967, those sacred mechanics have been well lubricated by well-considered measures of humour, self-reproach and wisdom.
Same as usual with Len then but this new collection of songs finds the 77-year-old Cohen more visible and more loved than at any time in his long career. When bankruptcy (his former manager allegedly made off with his fortune) necessitated his first world tour in fifteen years in 2008, the hosannas that greeted his live shows were awed but deafening. Cohen, unlike Dylan, came late to legend status. And following the disappointing slip in quality control that was 2004’s Dear Heather, he is on incredible form on Old Ideas.
He opens the ceremonial proceedings with the killer line, “I love to speak with Leonard, he’s a sportsman and a shepherd, he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” That’s Going Home in which he whispers wisdom into your ear as long-time collaborators The Webb Sisters coo beatifically in the background.
But this “manual for living with defeat” is not just indexed with black humour; Cohen’s parched, cracked voice is wreathed like smoke around the deeply serious The Darkness in which he confronts the depression he’s suffered for much of his adult life. “The present’s not that pleasant . . . I thought the past would last me, but the darkness got that too”. Baptist-like hymn Come Healing is perhaps the straightest and weakest thing here as he invites us down to the river for a spiritual dunking and thus redemption. But Banjo, a song inspired by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, is another stand out.
If his last two albums seemed to drift by on a tide of synths, a new-age daydream where the muzack was a suitable but soporific backdrop to Cohen’s low rumble, the sound here is a hypnotic mix of seedy lounge music, brittle banjo, violins, and the slow shuffle of brushed drums.
To paraphrase Woody Allen, anybody who likes Cohen’s earlier, funnier albums will be delighted by Old Ideas. On the back of the album cover Cohen has written these words in his own elegantly scripted calligraphy – “Coming to the end of the book . . . but not quite yet.”
Hallelujah to that.