Old Ideas — Leonard Cohen (Sony Music)
A new Leonard Cohen album is always something to look forward to, but it is important to acknowledge that besides the revelatory live albums of 2009 and 2010, he has not delivered a memorable album since 1992’s studio effort, The Future.
2001’s Ten New Songs had some fine moments, especially up front, but as an album its sparse instrumentation and patchy songwriting did not stand up to regular listening.
2004’s Dear Heather with its lite-jazz arrangements was also uneven and gave the impression that Cohen had spent so much time focusing on his lyrics that he had forgotten about the music, or lost interest.
On the face of it, it looked like he was a spent force; a man slowly fading out of the limelight.
Then in 2008, at the age of 74, Cohen announced a return to the stage with a new tour.
It was a huge surprise and the subsequent concerts were heralded by fans and critics alike. The resulting live albums, Live in London and Songs from the Road, illustrated how magnificent Cohen’s live return had been.
Now we get the first new Cohen studio album in seven years and it is bloody good — a return to form, if you must.
Titled Old Ideas (Sony Music), it is very firmly rooted in the gospel and blues of the American South, which is a perfect fit for his deep whispering voice that seems to gain more gravitas with age.
The opening track, Going Home, has Cohen at his playful lyrical best while the music gently shuffles along underneath his captivating voice. ‘I’d love to speak with Leonard/ He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/ He’s a lazy bastard/ Living in a suit/ But he does say what I tell him/ Even though it isn’t welcome/ He just doesn’t have the freedom/ To refuse.”
When he finally breaks into the gospel-tinged chorus about going home, the song takes on a certain level of poignancy because of Cohen’s return to the stage and the fact that he is now 77.
The backing vocalists on this track — and indeed the entire album — deserve a special mention. As a friend said the other day when we were taking a listen to Old Ideas for the first time: ‘If you were a backing singer, you’d want to sing on Leonard Cohen albums because you’d get all the best parts.”
I have to concur and Sharon Robinson, Dana Glover, Jennifer Warnes and the Webb Sisters are on top form throughout Cohen’s new offering, acting as a solid counterbalance to the great man’s deep voice.
The blues-driven number Amen is another highlight, gently moving through the ether, sounding like something that Tom Waits may have recorded if he found himself in a sedate mood.
Darkness takes an all-too-familiar blues riff and transforms it into a mellow jam with superb organ work by Neil Larsen.
The result is something that would not have seemed out of place on Bob Dylan’s Modern Times.
Although these three songs stand out after a few weeks of listening, the real treat of Old Ideas is how well it sits together as an album.
As mentioned already, it has been a while since Cohen managed to sustain a batch of songs this impressive and it appears as though the relationship he has established with his band over the past four years has benefited this album immensely.
I hope we get another album from Cohen and his collaborators before he disappears back into the wilderness.
But getting back to the new album, the true test of Old Ideas will lie in the listening — and once 2012 has passed into 2013, we will have a better understanding of just where this new album sits in Cohen’s admirable canon.
But for now it sounds fresh, vital and the best thing the world’s greatest singing poet has recorded in almost 20 years. And that truly is something to celebrate.