Leonard Cohen’s most recent record, Old Ideas, has been available for a few weeks now. His songs always take a while to unfold, so it is premature to make any definitive judgments about it, but my initial impression is that it’s a very fine record. Love, carnal and spiritual, has long been his special preoccupation, and that is true in these new songs as well, but the dominant theme on Old Ideas, from a man who is now 77 years old, is mortality, which he confronts with a fitting seriousness and what I imagine must be a hard-won graciousness.
He declares himself in the first lines of the lead track — or, to be precise, the Almighty Himself sets the stage: “I love to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit”. But he is, it seems, also a man willing to say what must be said: “He only has permission / To do my instant bidding / Which is to say what I have told him to repeat”. Thus, with cunning good humour, Cohen opens up a space in which to address the biggest, and oldest, ideas of all.
It is a late-night record, best heard in a quiet room, in a big leather chair, with something pungent in your glass. The musical textures on Old Ideas are more organic than has been typical on Cohen’s records during the past few decades: the soft-focus synthesizers are not entirely gone, but they are countered by the snap and twang of real guitar strings, real drumsticks hitting real drumheads, and what sounds like a real violin wending its wandering way. With that welcome difference, the songs here are built on the model we have come to expect: Cohen’s sepultural voice in the foreground, speaking as much as singing, and a halo of women’s voices shining in the background.
“Come Healing” is in some respects atypical on the record; the figure and ground are reversed, with the women moving into the foreground, and as such it functions as a kind of interlude. I include it here simply because it is so lovely, and captures well the hopeful spirit that, it seems to me, is at the heart of the record.