At 77 years old Leonard Cohen is a masterful elder. He’s been making music for 44 years and has released 12 studio albums. He spent five years isolated at a Buddhist retreat in the mid-90s and filed for bankruptcy in 2005 when a former manager screwed him out of all of his money. Not only is ‘Hallelujah’ one of the most covered songs of all time but he’s still touring and touching audiences around the world.
His new album Old Ideas sounds like a man at his Zen. It is dark and quiet, ominous but beautiful. It doesn’t sound like he trying to change the world but to express his experiences from the standpoint of an elder. He holds onto a closet beauty, a natural intelligence after being on the planet for 77 years and being an artist for most of that time.
When approaching Leonard Cohen, especially Old Ideas, you have to remember that he is a poet before he is a musician. While he triumphs through different styles and can make beautiful melodies, his lyrics come before anything else. On Old Ideas he uses different instruments on every song but every song has the same tone, sound, and mood. He goes through the banjo, the organ, a sliding guitar, the harmonica, a picking acoustic, and the viola but his passive, deep voice is the most prominent sound. Deepening the mood is a female choir who often back Cohen. They sound like angels perched above his shoulders bringing a grace from God.
Listening to Leonard Cohen’s new album is kind of like going to church. It is a dark musing on life’s oldest questions. Death, heartache, loneliness, and afterlife are all pondered through Cohen’s entire career, but on Old Ideas he sounds confident, at peace. On ‘Darkness’ he sings “I’ve got no future/I know my days are few/I thought the past would last me/but the darkness got that too” but he doesn’t sound anxious or ill at ease. He sounds like he is waiting for his time to move on. He doesn’t know when it is but he will be ready when it comes.
But while he is still here he might as well be making beautiful music. On ‘Anyhow’ you can imagine Cohen sitting in a lounge reflecting on a long lost lover. With a slow piano and soft shakers he moans, “I know it really is a pity/the way you treat me now/I know you can’t forgive me/But forgive me anyhow”.
When I was first introduced to Cohen someone described him as Canadian’s Bob Dylan. While the two have similar lengths in their careers, the dispatch of their personalities couldn’t be more different. Dylan is crazier, always eager to change his style and with that his persona. Cohen is calm, instead of deliberately changing his style he deepens it and with that his personality. They are similar because they often ponder life’s deepest questions. While Dylan shows a variety of experiences, Cohen shows a humble wiseness.
When Rolling Stone asked Cohen about the name Old Ideas Cohen explains, “It was the old ideas, old – you might even say unresolved – ideas that are wracking around in my brain.” Old Ideas is a meditation from an old soul who still doesn’t know the answers but has all of the questions.