Leonard Cohen: “Old Ideas”
I remember the first time I ever heard a full Leonard Cohen album. I was familiar with many of his songs, of course, largely through hearing them covered by other people. A friend of mine thought it was high time I got the straight dope, so he put a Cohen album on the turntable, but not before offering me a disclaimer: “Pay close attention to the lyrics,” Mike told me. “Leonard Cohen is really all about the words. The music is secondary.”
I’ve come to think Mike was wrong, at least as far as the early Cohen albums go. I’m defining “early” as anything that came before I’m Your Man in the late 80’s. Since then? Mike’s argument has gathered some strong supporting evidence. I’ll include this new one, Old Ideas, among that evidence.
We’re now more than two decades past the point where Cohen more or less abandoned any claims of making guitar-based folk music, and eased into a sort of Vegas-y, Casio-powered lounge crooner period. Or, rather, the tropes and trappings of a Vega lounge act, but without anything you might call singing. Old Ideas swaps the Casio keyboards for synthetic violins, a few odd appearances by actual stringed instruments, and, well, some more washed-out keyboard tones. The lounge feel is still here. And Cohen is 77. He can’t sing at all anymore, and leans more than ever on his angelic background singers to carry the melody. Together, they’ve recorded a set of songs that all look mortality square in the eye, then shrug it off with an easy acceptance that many are attributing to Cohen’s Zen Buddhism. The album is produced by Patrick Leonard, who also co-writes half the material, just as he has co-written some of Madonna’s biggest hits. For whatever that’s worth.
And I’m being told that the album is proving to be a soul-stirring, deeply moving experience to many of my friends. I confess that it’s something much less than that for me. Maybe Mike’s comments ruined latter-day Cohen for me. Maybe I’m just too young to be suitably moved by an album of deathbed meditations, though I quite like Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and much of Cash’s American series, particularly in its less fetishistic moments. The Cohen album seems to be winning praise because it’s a 77-year-old music legend, singing songs about death. I can’t argue with the facts, but I really don’t think the album is very good.
Which is not to say that I begrudge anyone the joy of being genuinely moved by the album, just as I don’t begrudge a man of Leonard Cohen’s stature the right to make whatever album he damn well chooses. But an argument that “the music isn’t great, but Cohen is really more about the words” is no more convincing to me than an argument that hearing an elderly man sing about death is inherently moving or profound. Inherently courageous, maybe. I do find there to be something primal and instinctive about this record, which lends it a certain weight that the performances and production don’t really convey with suitable force.
It’s really rather remarkable how Cohen has abandoned the keyboard schmaltz of Ten New Songs and Dear Heather for a sound that is ostensibly more organic, but really sounds no different. The exception is a great song called “Crazy to Love You,” performed by Cohen on solo acoustic guitar, just like before. It’s a terrific song because it sounds like a song, intimate and stripped to its essence. The other songs are more like approximations of songs, I think. “Darkness” imitates some blues licks but doesn’t have any grit or volume or heft, and then an organ comes in that takes us right back to Vegas. “Amen” has some gypsy flourishes that are too studious to be playful of whimsical, when a bit of whimsy or play would help me believe the song a bit more. That one moment of acoustic bliss aside, the production on this album is simply dreadful.
And the material. I’ve just this week heard someone describe what Cohen writes as “mantras,” which I suppose is accurate in the sense that they’re repetitive, and leave the listener with no doubt that Cohen is a man who savors words, teasing them on his tongue. But while they may be mantras, I’m not entirely sure I feel comfortable calling them songs. There is nothing very musical about them, even once you dig beneath the ghastly production choices. They are spoken word performances, dirgelike and solemn despite a few moments of wry wit. Most of them are so fixated on death (and so dogged in avoiding life) that they do, for me, take on a sort of fetishistic quality, not helped by the fact that Cohen mixes metaphysics with sexual obsession, or that a lot of these lyrics employ vague spirituality, dressed up like profundity in the same way that the arrangements are dressed up like music.
I should say again that I don’t wish to step on anyone’s right to be moved by this record; I am just explaining why it doesn’t work for me. Even a songwriting legend, confronted with his own impending death and full of the purest intentions, is capable of crafting kitsch, just as kitsch can, I suppose, seem more affecting than affected when heard in a certain frame of mind.