Review: Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

Old Ideas is, as the title suggests, a Leonard Cohen album that shows Leonard Cohen doing what he always has; it is just a relief that consistency, when making albums like this, is a very valuable quality. His first album since 2004’s Dear Heather sees the legendary singer-songwriter not experimenting or surprising, but simply creating another brilliant album of expressive, raw and lyrically unmatched songs.

With opening track Going Home, we are immediately struck by his husky, dulcet voice, like a less gravelly Tom Waits, as he gently speaks the lines over a chorus of backing singers. With minimal instrumentation – the soft plod of a piano and the occasional company of a violin – and the raspy vocals, the beautiful lyrics and the yearning tone are almost lifted above the context of the song and forced upon us. This rolls seamlessly into Amen which, after its seven minutes of longing and desperation, gave me the feeling of having aged. The song, unconsciously so, seems to roll very slowly to a stop, and keeps you rolling along with it.

There are, thankfully, points on the album where the tempo lifts and we are treated to some wonderfully layered brass led and guitar picked songs which, at just the right moment, pick up the pace and remind us of the exciting music that Cohen can still make. Crazy To Love You is a beautifully simple song, in which he accompanies himself with the simple plucking of a guitar, and goes all out to show that twelve albums in, he needs nothing more.

There is a constant danger with this album that, after being eased in with the first few measured, slow-paced and unobtrusive ballads, you become more and more aware of the spoken word element of it, which makes you wonder whether Old Ideas is simply an album of ageing Cohen lyrics that he may be past singing. It’s hard to not compare him to Tom Waits, who, with his 2011 release Bad As Me, showed he still has as much energy and versatility as ever with his song-writing and performance, and, though they have always had very different styles, Cohen’s offering does seem rather lack-lustre in comparison.

Even with late, melodic Banjo, the pace slowly draws to a halt and leaves you waiting for the peak, which just never seems to come. I found myself thankful when album closer Different Sides began with its comparatively uplifting bouncy rhythm and melody that, for the second time in the album, the other being The Darkness, I had found myself taken enough by to sway along.

This is definitely a record which you can imagine being written late one night in the orange glow of an American highway bar, and it has that lyrical passion and genius that we have come to expect from Cohen, but it just seems to drag at times. Every so often I found myself lost and not entirely focused on every song, and often you come back in unaware of where you left off; but, if anything, this is a testament to the smooth, consistent blues that Cohen creates so beautifully. It doesn’t seem to matter that Cohen has gone past his singing years, because it is as if his body has finally caught up to his voice, and the music he is creating is as self-aware as ever.

It is not Cohen’s best album and it is not an album that will win him a new following, but it is yet another verification of his lyrical genius.

Josh King


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