Tuesday, February 7, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Leonard Cohen - "Old Ideas"

Let’s get this out of the way right up front:

Leonard Cohen could sing the text from a Dairy Queen menu and it would sound like something written by a prophet who spends his life trudging up a mountain, battling who knows what along the way, then spends innumerable years waiting on God who eventually reveals himself and has a face to face dialog with the sage who then descends the mountain, much wiser and wearier to try and relate his experience to all of us commoners, living in oblivion by keeping ourselves busy with completely mundane and unimportant things.

I saw Leonard Cohen live in 2009. I’ve said many times that I can only describe the experience as, “Biblical”. It truly was like I was sitting at the foot of that wise old sage. My wife was with me, but had never heard of Cohen or any of his music before that night. She first asked if he was lip-syncing. Within a few minutes, when you could tell that she realized that she was in fact hearing Cohen’s voice – one of the most unique and divisive in all of recorded music – she said, “He’s kind of dramatic. A little goofy.” She wasn’t sure about his melodramatic gestures, his falling to one knee repeatedly, and his “if anybody else said this stuff, it would sound unbearably over the top” stage banter. Another song or two later, “Is he gay?” No, my dear, he most assuredly is not. Another song, “Wow…he’s kinda sexy. His vibe is kinda hot. Even for an old guy.” Once we had addressed all of those concerns, she settled in for the rest of the three-hour show and by the end, just like me and everyone else in the room, her jaw hung wide open in the realization that we had witnessed something very special.

And, let’s be honest…Isn’t that pretty close to a summation of all of our experiences with Leonard Cohen? He sings about love and God, life and struggles. His songs are dark, lovely, spiritual, sexy, and often very funny. His music is different. It takes a while to warm up to it. Then, just when you get used to the early, folky stuff, he introduces an electric keyboard and makes an album that kind of sounds like the soundtrack to the night-time scenes on Miami Vice.

He’s got that Tom Waits quality; you love him or you hate him. Even those who hate him, though, can easily recognize the genius of his songs. We’ve all heard some young or old, experienced or inexperienced artist or band try to take on Cohen’s classic “Halleluha” – the butchering of that modern-day standard is practically a rite of passage for anyone who claims to be a singer of any stripe.

Largely, his recordings have failed to properly capture his magic. They’ve been under-produced, over-produced, or just plain poorly produced. He’s relied too heavily on his Casio keyboard. And there’s that voice. That voice. Lower than low. Gruffer than Tom Waits and Cookie Monster at times. Harder to listen to than Dylan at his best or Kristofferson at his worst.

But, these limitations are in some sense what makes Cohen’s music so special. He once told Judy Collins, who had a hit with her cover of Cohen’s classic, “Suzanne”, as he pitched her the song, “I can’t sing and I can’t play guitar and I don’t know if this is a song.” She assured him there was a song there and she recorded it the next day. (Notice there was no arguing with his claims over singing or playing the guitar…wink-wink).

New listeners don’t typically just listen to Leonard Cohen once and fall in love. It takes work. He has to grow on you. He has to work his magic. You have to kind of figure him out.

That was before, though.

Before his “people” embezzled all of his money and he declared bankruptcy. Before he embarked on a massive multi-year world tour to generate enough of a nest egg that he could live on again. Before all of this somehow turned him into a jovial old man who enjoyed the spotlight again.

We used to have to go a long time without hearing anything from Leonard Cohen. He seemed to like it that way. He’d go ten years between albums. It was almost like he spent as much time as he could accumulating pain and worldly experience before finally expelling them in one document of a few songs and retreating again.

He used to retreat to remote places in the Mediterranean between albums and tours. Sometimes he retreated to Buddhist monasteries.

Leonard Cohen is not like artists you know. When I think of Cohen, I always think of one picture I saw of him. He’s in a wide open room in a structure made almost entirely of stone with open windows. The only furniture in the room is a bed, a wooden chair, and a small table/desk. The location appears to be somewhere like Italy or Greece. There’s a vintage European-looking guitar leaned against the unmade bed, which is dressed in perfectly white linens. Cohen, dressed in white pants and a thin, mostly-open linen shirt, is unshaven, tired looking, and barefoot, sitting at the desk, typing. At the far end of the room a beautiful dark-haired woman sits, completely naked, on the chair, staring intently at Cohen as he labors; inspiring him. She is obviously his muse. At least for that phase of his life. For that album. That song.

Other artists fabricate scenes that look like that. When you watch movies that try to be “artsy”, this is the kind of scene you see. Except, this scene is real. This is how Leonard Cohen lives. Or did for a long time, anyway.

Now he lives in a house in L.A. He recorded his new album, “Old Ideas” above the garage of that house. Much less romantic, no?

But it works. All of the recent activity – the constant touring, the live albums (two in three years), the reissuing of live performances from the 60’s – have energized Cohen. He’s said that the activity led to a creative burst of writing on the tour, which led quickly to the recording of the new album. He’s even talking about touring again, to support “Old Ideas”.

And while the results couldn’t be called “joyful”, there is some level of joy in this record; more apparent than in anything else he’s done. A friend of mine who never could quite get into the music of Leonard Cohen recently listened to “Old Ideas” and told me this might be the one Cohen album he could actually appreciate.

It’s easier to listen to.

It’s still Cohen. It’s raw and honest. It’s sad and funny.

It reminds me of Tom Waits’ latest album, “Bad As Me”; it takes what the artist does best, refines it a little, tightens it up and presents it in an almost flawless, concise package.

On the opening song, “Going Home”, Leonard takes the voice of God, requesting an audience with Leonard Cohen, whom he refers to as “a lazy bastard living in a suit”.

The next track, “Amen”, sounds to me like a latter-day follow-up to “Hallelujah”. It’s more playful than somber; more confident than worshipful. It’s a love note from a more confident, playful older man as compared to one from his overly-earnest younger self.

One of my favorite songs on the album, the first single, “Show Me the Place”, sounds to me like a sequel to Cohen’s classic ,”If It Be Your Will”. Cohen wrote “If It Be Your Will” as a prayer during a time when he couldn’t find his voice. On “Show Me the Place”, Cohen sounds, again, like a more confident and secure older man. Where “If It Be Your Will” was a heartfelt and blind pledge in an unknowing time, “Show Me the Place”, is a continuation of that pledge. But this time the artist knows more. He’s stayed the course and is confident in his muse and himself. He knows God – or whomever he’s speaking to – will ultimately take care of him. He’s secure in his choice and commitment. He’s not scared, but he knows the race isn’t completely run. He’s resigned himself to complete the task, whatever it takes.

“Come Healing” is unexpectedly uplifting and a very strong contender for the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard.

I could go on and on, but I’m not a fan of track-by-track commentaries. Suffice it to say that Cohen’s “Old Ideas” sound familiar and yet completely new. He’s reinvigorated. The instrumentation is minimal – and, maybe for the first time, not over or under-produced. There is some blues here, even some country. The Casio is still here, too.

Cohen’s longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson lends her beautiful voice to great effect. When Cohen was on tour recently, he introduced his newest collaborators every evening as “the sublime Webb Sisters”. They’re present on this record and they are just that; sublime.

Leonard Cohen isn’t like people you know. He’s not like artists you know of. He’s unique. He’s special. He’s on a different plane than you and me. Yet he sings of things universal and instantly identifiable.

This is a fine work from a true “Tower of Song”.

Here’s hoping the newly reinvigorated master still has a few more “Old Ideas” left in him.


Ryan Mifflin is the host of Dirty Roots Radio, a "Quentin Tarantino-ization of a spaghetti western style old-school record show" featuring renegade country, vintage gospel, raw blues, greasy soul, punk, and funk. Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) on WGRN 89.5 FM. Listen online from anywhere in the world at www.wgrn.net.




  1. Just received this CD. Leonard Cohen is everything you describe and more.
    I'm a fan, he sings me to sleep.

  2. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the piece and glad LC means as much to you, too!