Releasing our Reviews Editor’s favourite album of 2011, Tom Waits rebelled against the accepted wisdom that musicians fade with age. In 2012 Leonard Cohen is looking to do the same thing. Here, Mark Ray gives his take on one of our most anticipated records of the year.
When Leonard Cohen recorded his first album I was 2 years old; I’m now getting uncomfortably close to 50 and Cohen has just released his 12th studio album, Old Ideas. Some musicians burn brightly and are gone in an instant, leaving us maybe one or two great albums, others have an artistic peak and spend the rest of their careers with their best body of work hanging like an albatross around their necks, whilst still others embarrass themselves and the audience by prancing around the stage like teenagers when they are well into their dotage. Only a minor few can claim to have relevance after 40 years. What makes Cohen still relevant is that he is an artist, in the true sense of the word. Before releasing that first album, he was already a respected novelist and poet. An artist does not have to worry about fashion or age, for both are fleeting… though he does, it seems, have to worry about money: it was a lack of financial success from his literary work that first drove Cohen to try his hand at music, and it was bankruptcy in 2005 that drove him to tour again.
So, what does Old Ideas deliver? Cohen’s ideas have always been religious, mystic, sexual, romantic, longing, despair and filled with often overlooked humour (anyone who could write a song called Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On must have a sense of humour).
The album opens with ‘Going Home’ and finds Cohen addressing himself in the third person. He talks of shedding the burden that is Leonard, the lazy bastard living in a suit, when he goes home. It’s an insight into the schizophrenia of fame and could be self piteous, but when Cohen sings that “Leonard speaks words of wisdom“, but knows he’s really nothing, the honesty creaks through his voice.
And it is that voice that carries the songs through. Most of the music is sparse, a perfect peg to hang that gloriously resonant, only infrequently cracking with age, deep voice that whispered in a thousand lover’s ears. And it is this voice that carries us through the old ideas of love, desire, death and mysticism. Old ideas maybe, but the they are the subject of artists throughout the centuries.
‘Show Me the Place’ is modern day spirituality dripping with Christian imagery mixed with desire that only Johnny Cash and Nick Cave can match. On ‘Anyhow’ we see the repentant lover begging for some way back into his lover’s affections. Cohen probably does desire and repentance better than anyone.
One thing that seems to be missing is any pondering of age; at 77 we may have expected Cohen to muse more on the last years of life. That he does not for 9/10ths of the album is uplifting in itself; here is a man who is still addressing the big issues of life with precision and humour. He may not have got many answers in his 70 odd years but he hasn’t given up asking the questions. And yet, on ‘Crazy To Love You’, where he subverts the idea of being crazy to love someone (in this instance he sings about actually making himself crazy in order to love someone who was never the one) he does address the old age. He sings that he is tired of choosing desire and of being saved by blessed fatigue. Here we see relief in being free from the slavery of desire, even if it is forced on us by the weariness of age. And in the end, Cohen has to admit: “I’m old: mirrors don’t lie“.
With each new release we wonder if this will be the final recordings of Mr Cohen. If this is to be his last word then it is as much enjoyable as his first, those 40 years ago. He may still be asking the same questions and musing on women and God but I can’t think of any artist who has used the form of music to ask the questions so beautifully.
May Mr Cohen’s old ideas live on for many more years.
Old Ideas is out 30/01/12 in the UK on Columbia.