Narcissism and self-deprecation typically coexist in Leonard Cohen's spare new album Old Ideas.
Leonard Cohen's astonishing endurance as a songwriter and musician owes to at least two things. A musical imagination that grapples with basic and timeless themes that tease the mind and mine the heart — salvation, suffering, betrayal, guilt, regret, adoration and hope. Less importantly, a sudden renaissance in the 1990s, when his music found its way into movie soundtracks and became covers in the work of a diverse range of artists. It has continued to live and flourish since this unexpected rebirth Eight years since his last album, Cohen is back with Old Ideas; a typically self-deprecatory title that is a possible reference to his advanced years (77) and his choice to remain in the same musical continuum. Don't expect any radical departures here in either genre or mood.
This is the Cohen we have always known, the man who persuaded us it was hip to be gloomy, his dark inner torments eased by a gentle self-mocking humour and a voice of self-absorbed, almost distracted, eroticism.
Narcissism and self-denigration typically coexist in the opening track of the meditatively paced Going Home, which sets the smouldering and mournful tone for the rest of the album. He will speak these words of wisdom/Like a sage, a man of vision/Though he knows he's really nothing/But the brief elaboration of a tube.
In Darkness, his gripping melancholy, alleviated by a spirited bass synthesiser and perky piano riffs, is more in your face. (I got no future/I know my days are few/The present's not that pleasant/Just a lot of things to do.) Anyhow, in which he pleads with a former lover to hate him less (Could you cut me one more slack?) is more a recital than a song by a man who turned to music after the lack of financial success as a poet and writer.
His voice if anything is more gravelly than ever. There is orchestration but it is not as full and lush as it has been in his more recent live performances. This is musical minimalism, the melody sacrificed for a brutal simplicity and the accompanying instruments and voices secreted softly in the background.
Old Ideas is more for dyed-in-the-wool Cohen fans like myself – that small but loyal audience which cannot but be gripped by moody anthems on the human condition, with their ruminations on sexuality and salvation and their conflicts about greed and renunciation.
Greenhorns are better advised to pick up one of his other works — preferably one of the ‘Best of…' albums — for an introduction to a man known as the poet-laureate of despair.
Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen, Sony Music, 2012.