Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Still Alive and Well: Leonard Cohen's Old Ideas

One warm evening in the spring of 2008, I filed into the Sony Centre in downtown Toronto where you could feel in this company of strangers a communal certainty that what we were about to witness was something captivating. Moments later, garbed in a grey suit and fedora, a Canadian legend took the stage. The applause only ceased when the opening chords of “Dance Me To The End of Love” wafted over us. So began our intimate three-hour encounter with the Canadian icon Leonard Cohen. Like many of his recordings, the performance was simple but urbane; humble but iconic; mournful but beautiful; thus making each detail unforgettable.

Several years after that epic world tour, in his 77th year, Cohen returned to the studio. The result is Old Ideas (Sony Music Canada., 2012) the twelfth studio album in his 44 year career and the first since Dear Heather in 2004. Living off of the vivid memory of that evening almost four years ago, the announcement of Old Ideas was a warm welcome. The album itself proof that Cohen’s artistic crux is still aglow in his twilight years. A Montreal native, Cohen was a published poet before his twentieth birthday. His poetic and literary accomplishments, which also include two novels that capture the quintessential melancholy of CanLit, might have established his foundation, but it is through song, however, that he became immortalized.

One of Cohen's greatest strengths has been his ability to articulate the most indescribable micro-emotions, those fleeting feelings that can only be diagnosed during our most intimate contemplations of spiritualism, mortality, and sex. In Old Ideas, these motifs are still present, but they have further matured and been reshaped. The essence of his familiar themes of religion, loss, failure, and life however remain. Devoted followers will instantly hear their familiar professor from the opening lines of the first track, "Going Home": “I’d love to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a Shepard / He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.”

Leonard Cohen on stage in 2009
Songs like "Show Me The Place" and "Crazy to Love" can still fill you with a special delight as he allows himself to be tortured by those deeper longings brought on by regret. (It also confirms that, in those areas, there’s no hope for the rest of us.) A specialist in failed romance, Cohen chronicles how crazy we have to be to fall in love: “Had to go crazy to love you / Had to let everything fall / Had to be people I hated / Had to be no one at all.” With those profound statements “Crazy has places to hide / That are deeper than any goodbye” the songwriter reminds his listeners of every heartache past.

While Cohen has confirmed numerous times through interviews and on stage that old age has cured his depression, the souvenir regret and missed opportunities is still evident in the work. Remorse and isolation still weave through the tapestry of the rhythmic single "The Darkness." The references to solitude make the album reminiscent to his 2001 collaboration with Sharon Robinson, Ten New Songs. The sound of the album stays true to form. The elements of jazz, gospel, folk, and Americana alternate throughout Old Ideas. Cohen’s growling baritone delivers the lines with more conviction than any melodious cover artist ever could. The grittiness is eloquently accented with angelic hums from his female backing singers and the subtlety of the arrangements.

Leonard Cohen is undoubtedly one tough act to follow. It’s nearly impossible to rival the rawness heard in "I’m Your Man"; to reach the poignancy of "Who By Fire" or "Anthem"; to duplicate the cynicism of "The Future"; to summon the anguish in "Famous Blue Raincoat" or "Coming Back to You." Old Ideas presents an even more somber and cultivated Cohen. Rooted in his mastery and liberated by emotion, Leonard Cohen has still got it.

Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.

1 comment:

  1. He most definitely does still have it! After this review I picked it up and I agree. Great album.