Leonard has never been big on upbeat so it's hardly a surprise that this, his latest offering, continues the path of maudlin songwritership making the album title, Old Ideas, apt. Little has changed with the exception of Leonard's voice getting even deeper if such a thing is possible. A handful of great songs and some dodgy production combine to make this both an intriguing and disappointing but largely good twilight album.
The album is Relatively short at a mere 10 tracks ranging in length from a 2 1/2 minute standard to those 8-9 minutes in length. The overall feel is that this is a cohesive collection of songs, some better than others with Leonard in places adding an almost throw away element to his usually meticulous song craft.
Melodically, most of the songs are carried by the selection of angelic backing singers countering Leonard's gravely drawl. He rarely sings, rather speaks, but you still get a sense of melody through this careful accompaniment. Instrumentation leaves space for both sets of voices and is carefully chosen in it's sparseness and never gets overindulgent or distractive.
Lyrically, as one would expect, each song is fluid and poetic often unsurprisingly reflecting on the twighlight of one's life, and often failing relationships with women.
Whilst tonally the songs all have a common ground, they can be a bit hit and miss. The album opens with the beautifully reflective and self deprecating 'Going Home' - 'I'd love to speak with Leonard, he's a sportsman and a shepherd, he's a lazy bastard living in a suit'. It sets the tone excellently for the rest of the album. The single from the album is 'Show Me The Place' which is probably the standout song on the album and Leonard's most poetic and vulnerable, personal moment. I would include it in my top 5 Leonard Cohen songs of all time.
'Anyhow' I found to be a little dull and meandering. Conversely, 'Crazy To Love You' is probably as impassioned as Leonard gets, also as melodic and expressive in his own voice. 'Come Healing' is a beautiful, elegant and mediative ballad where the backing singers really come into their own to carry the song. 'Banjo' is as lightweight as this album gets and almost feels throwaway and it's inclusion feels out of place.
On the whole the songwriting is excellent. However, It's strange given what a meticulous songwriter Leonard Cohen is, that the production across this album doesn't follow suit and is so sloppy.
The whole album has a curious production sheen to it that makes strings sound fake although the album credits would suggest they are real as it credits real players. In places it sounds as though they have almost been auto tuned making them sound cold and like samples.
The biggest crime however here is the quality of the vocal recording which in places is unforgivable for it's time. Many takes have background noise which makes it hard to edit cleanly - a case in point is 'Show Me The Place' where consistently throughout you can hear the fade in and fade out of the vocal recording. Given the high profile nature of the album and artist it's bizarre this was allowed to happen. Perhaps it was intended stylistically to give the vocal an intimate feel but rather than this, it comes across as ill executed and very sloppy. You would assume a top engineer would have worked on this, which makes it's lack of finish even odder. This is most strikingly appalling on the last line where it is unforgivable and ruins the song for me completely. Listen to the last 2 words and the way the last word is cut short... It's disgraceful.
It's a huge shame that these points mar what should and could have been an excellent album. In the majority, Leonard's songwriting it still on tip top form but such sloppiness on the production let's this down massively.
===Old ideas for new times.===
I love this album, it is Leonard Cohen at his most mellow, reflective and astringent. I would argue that none of his ideas are old but then I have grown both older and younger listening to his 'ideas'. My Dad used to hate him and referred to him sardonically as "Laughing Leonard" but even he came to appreciated Cohen's lyricism!
Jennifer Warnes, if I remember rightly, said Cohen's music was "the place where God, sex and literature meet up." She wasn't wrong but this new album sees Cohen also reflecting on his age. As I listen to it I think that his age has finally caught up with his voice. He always sounded old but now he sounds the age he is. (if you see what I mean.)
===Who Is He?===
Leonard Cohen has been writing poetry and music for the last six decades. I have only been listening to him for the last four! He was born in Canada in September 1934. The themes of his work include sexuality, spirituality, relationships, lack of relationships, age and longing. He has been awarded Canada's highest order when he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. He has also been inducted into various Halls of Fame including the USa's and Canada's. So as you can see, he is no slouch!
People either love him or hate him. His lyrics are dense and because of this need listening to a few times as their multi layered meanings unfold for you. He has been satirised as a suicide inducing 'prophet of doom'. The overtly sexual themes of some of his songs has caused him to be banned from some radio stations! His work is sometimes controversial but always compelling. He has a gravelly voice which often wanders away from the tuneful. (that's being a bit kind!) Cohen has collaborated with many other musicians such as Jennifer Warnes, U2, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Carole King etc etc. His son, Adam Cohen has just released an album that would make any parent proud.
He is a legend.
==Not a track by track account I promise!==
I am not going to go through each track and describe it, that would be boring for you, I'll just try to give you a taste of a few. Old ideas is a lovely mix of love songs, protest, observation and humour.
In one of my favourite ballads "Crazy to Love You", he sings gently... "I'm tired of choosing desire, I've been saved by a blessed fatigue. The gates of commitment unwired, and nobody's trying to leave." Our poor Leonard seems to be feeling his age, which is not suprising really because he was defrauded out of all his money and had to go back on the road at the age of about 75. At a recent concert of his that I was lucky enough to attend, he said that his accountant had done him a favour because it had forced him back into touring and being inspired by new places and people. I am not sure I would be so forgiving but it was marvellous to see him as fresh and commanding as ever.
The first track "Going Home" sees Cohen having a conversation about himself. I found a lot of the lyrics of this a bit dense and hard to understand but it is easy to listen to and the backing singers are flawless.
Track 2. Amen, has to be one of the most beautiful, it finds Cohen pleading for reassurance that he is loved. The fact is you don't know whether he is talking to his lover or his God. On a lot of different levels this track is exquisite. It has to be one of my favourite of all times. He lays out his vulnerability and exposes our own with his "Tell me again and again." The backing of violin and trombone has a gentle, strangely Mexican feel to it.
Getting towards the end of the album, Lullaby, is accompanied by the most exquisite and haunting harmonica playing. "If your night is long, here's my lullaby." the harmonica plays the track out gently and memorably, leaving us dreamy and perhaps dreaming wistfully of that depth of love Cohen conveys.
The last track, Different Sides. reminds me of "Next we take Manhattan." for the feel of it, not the words. Cohen's voice is choppy but suprisingly melodic for him. The jazz piano background and soft percussion provides a nice counterpoint to the lyrics, a quiet remonstration about how a couple relate to one another...."Frankly I don't like your tone, you want to change the way to make love but I want to leave it alone." It is magically wry.
Overall the album brings us a mixture of slow and plaintive and upbeat and strident. Much of it is in his signature waltz time. His poetry speaks to anyone who has ever reflected upon how life works and how we can sometimes mess up. He also, speaks to us of reparation and growth. It is fresh, very listenable to and with no weak tracks, to my ears anyway! Get it and listen to it, then listen a few more times as it weaves it's melancholy enchantment into you.
1. Going Home
3. Show Me the Place
4. The Darkness
6. Crazy to Love You
7. Come Healing
10. Different Sides
On November 23, 2011, author, singer, and songwriter Leonard Cohen released "Show Me the Way" as a precursor to Old Ideas, his first album since 2004. Two more new songs, "Lullaby" and "Darkness," were showcased during his two-year world tour that lasted from early 2008 to last year. They are included on the new album, whose topics are deeply spiritual in nature and range from mortality to sexuality, loss, and acceptance. Old Ideas will be released on January 31, 2012. Its producers include his partner, singer/songwriter Anjani Thomas; his saxophonist, Dino Soldo; poet Ed Sanders; and Patrick Leonard.
***I'll give the last word to Cohen.***
The album overall is a masterpiece of poetry, unobtrusive (but almost angelic) backing, strong melody and harmony, masterly syncopation, pure wisdom, humour and striving towards the better parts of us.
''All I've got to put in a song is my own experience'' Leonard Cohen