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Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (Sony)

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Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas (Sony)

By Scott Creney

By anyone else’s standards, this album might be considered a work of genius — or whatever adjective people use to describe Will Oldham these days. And though Cohen fans will be pleased with it, there’s nothing here to entice the uninitiated. It’s starting to look like Leonard Cohen may never surprise us again.

That “brief elaboration of a tube” line is pretty brilliant, the way it implies blood vessels and nerve endings, fallopian tubes and penises. The way he sings, it’s not hard to imagine that the home he speaks of is a grave, that the song is a eulogy delivered to the self. It is, by some distance, the best song on Old Ideas.

Not to say the rest of the album is horrible, but it’s nothing special. There’s nothing as unexpectedly lewd as ‘Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On’, as surreally mysterious as ‘The Partisan’, or as musically surprising as the entirety of I’m Your Man was at the time it came out. Old Ideas isn’t terrible, but it isn’t particularly great either.

‘Darkness’ is okay until the shitty house band from some late-night show starts busting out the organ solos. At which point, I start to imagine that when Cohen sings, “I’ve got the darkness”, he’s singing about The Darkness.

Come to think of it, “I believe in a thing called love“, sounds like a line Cohen might have written, though when he sang it he would have emphasized the thing part instead of the love.

Anyway, LC follows the template he’s been following for the last 20 years. He’s still peddling his bedroom songs for the educated letch. The music is still soft and understated, accompanied by shuffling brushed percussion, reflective and hushed.  He’s still more persona than person, singing as someone who has seen it all, wiser than God and certain he has better stories. He’s still accompanied by anonymous female backup singers — a chorus, a colony of delicate white angels. As for Cohen himself, he still sings in that same skeletal croak, with the same stoic emotionalism.

His language is the same comingling of the sacred and profane. For a Buddhist, it must be said that Cohen’s religious imagery is strictly Old Testament — songs of slaves and sacrifice, serpents and lambs, punctuated by shitloads of amens.

The specter of mortality hangs over the album like a filled noose, the kind of obsession with death you only find in the very young or the very old. About death, Cohen remains, as he’s always been about every subject he’s ever written about, more aware than afraid. One can’t imagine him screaming even if he were on fire. Wouldn’t cry if he was chopping onions at his mother’s funeral. For better or worse, Leonard Cohen always plays it cool. It’s part of his appeal. And ultimately, part of his limitations as an artist.

Anyway, Old Ideas is a waltz of eternal sleep, lullabies leading straight into the tomb. Play it while watching the bank foreclose on your grandma’s house. Or play it while you’re drinking cheap wine in your apartment with someone you’re trying to fuck. If nothing else, LC’s good for either situation.

But if this is your first Leonard Cohen album, you’re probably better off starting somewhere else.

12 Responses to Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (Sony)

  1. David February 1, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Agree with this. Was quite disappointing.

  2. Golightly February 1, 2012 at 10:43 am

    It’s not called NEW IDEAS Scott, it’s called OLD IDEAS. I’d say it does what it says on the tin. Can’t say fairer than that. An old man, contemplating the things that old men contemplate, rehashing his old trusted style from his past. How can you be disappointed with something that carried the correct labelling to give the right expectations? Be grateful that the bastard is still with us, still making music and still making the music we expect of him. Be careful what you wish for, you wouldn’t likely like it if he went all modern on us now.

  3. Ed February 1, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    This review and Pitchfork’s giving the album a 7.4 were the only 2 reviews I’ve seen of the record that didn’t try to crawl up Cohen’s butt, caught up in the bullshit “isn’t he authentic” crap. I love Cohen’s words but his last few albums? Not so much. And this album is definitely same old, same old, nothing new. Didn’t anyone one else notice that all his albums have had the same cheesy synth production for ages now?

  4. Daniel February 2, 2012 at 2:39 am

    @Scott: Are you disappointed because Old Ideas falls short of Cohen’s standard or yours? The arrangements and production are consistent with I’m Your Man and most work after (though most Cohen fans prefer the Bob Johnston production). You seem more alienated by the migration from the self-conscious/aware imagism of his earlier lyrics to the universal hymns and anthems he’s striving for now. With this record, you might be looking through the telescope at the wrong end. Instead of pondering whether Old Ideas is a good first record for listeners, consider whether or not it’s a good last record for Cohen.

  5. Golightly February 3, 2012 at 12:34 am

    If the album was titled REHASHED IDEAS I reckon Scott would be disappointed if it was as described. Just maybe it’s not an ironic title. Maybe it’s the title of an album full of self acceptance in the face of it’s own limitations. An album that revels in itself for what it is rather than what it could have been had it been written and recorded by a twenty-something during a different era. Maybe Cohen is getting worse at song-writing… but I’d take a less than average Cohen album over the début of anyone who could be considered his newcomer-equivalent any day of the week. And that says something.

  6. Daniel February 3, 2012 at 2:08 am

    @Golightly:

    I agree with those sentiments. Again, it’s not MY OLD IDEAS, but OLD IDEAS, which can be read a couple of different ways. Much like the lyrics when read, it reads ambiguously, but his voice converts the abstract into something more specific. He’s been writing for his voice. Most of his career he wrote in spite of it.

  7. Ed February 3, 2012 at 5:57 am

    All it says, Golightly, is that you are a fan of Leonard Cohen and that you’re willing to overlook weak work when it’s his. Which is fine. That’s what being a fan is all about. But it doesn’t say anything larger than that.

  8. Golightly February 3, 2012 at 11:59 am

    hmmm. I am just thinking that the review gave less credit than was due. I don’t believe in giving more though. Maybe I am just not as harsh on Leonard Cohen as you, but who knows? We all take from it what we want to. I have no problem with crawling up his bumhole… it’s a wiser choice than crawling up the latest x-factor or crappy boy-with-guitars-and-clichéd-lyrical-content-and-tousled-hair-band’s bumhole and plenty of people do that. Now if you will excuse me, I’m off to listen to more of Pussy Riot’s youtube music videos. Ciao.

  9. Dan February 8, 2012 at 10:27 am

    I love that people are disappointed a 75 year old man isn’t branching out and doing something different with his new album. You people are hilariously and most unreasonably demanding.

  10. Victoria Birch February 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    @ Dan – the assumption a 75 year old’s artistic output is hindered by their age is on par with judging creativity based on gender or race. If someone is creatively active and engaged their work has to be assessed on its merits. To let someone off the hook because they’re ‘old’ is symptomatic of a society that views the elderly as incapable of adding value. Are you suggesting Scott should pat Cohen on the back merely because he managed to record a half-decent album at his AGE. For me, Scott’s review shows disappointment in someone who (he believes) still has the ability to produce outstanding material – that’s far more respectful and reasonable than assuming Cohen is incapable of ‘branching out’ because he’s 75.

  11. Scott February 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Dan, I just thought it was important, as a reviewer, to tell people what to expect (or in this case what not to expect) on LC’s new album. If he isn’t capable of artistic growth because (as you seem to think) he’s 75 years old, that’s his problem, not mine. He’s still charging the same amount of money for his albums; they deserve to be evaluated by the same standards.

    As someone who’s bought over a half-dozen of his records, this one sits at the bottom of my pile. I’m not sure I should pretend otherwise just because LC’s old. That would be dishonest, and ultimately a disservice to the people who read Collapse Board.

    Besides, for all you know I’m 76 years old and just can’t write well anymore.

  12. David May 23, 2012 at 12:50 am

    I’ve been a Cohen fan for 30 years (I discovered him late). I love this album. The first time I heard “Show Me the Way”, I wept. I’ve never been a fan of his backup girls – I would leave them on the editing floor every time – but his voice and the organ bring me to my knees. And Going Home is a song that every artist and preacher needs to hear. It’s about our how our enormous egos need to submit to beauty and truth. Amazing album.

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