by Nash Bussieres
It’s really difficult to come into an album like Old Ideas without preconceived notions. We all know who Leonard Cohen is and the weight the name carries in this country. As a songwriter, it’s very hard to not trace a trail of influence back to him regardless of the style of music you write. For me, there is no trail: Leo is the be-all-end-all of Canadian songwriting as far as overall package is concerned – in my not-so-humble opinion – so there wasn’t much of a chance for me to be able to listen to the album with a clean ear-slate. I made the mistake of doing this with Tom Waits new album and found that after a while it wasn’t nearly as good as I was giving it credit for. I had ridden a wave of past elation over the choppy seas of Bad as Me’s sub-par (by Waits’ standards) songwriting and arrangement.
I’m almost certain I’m not going to have the same problem this time.
Old Ideas is fucking incredible.
It’s the kind of album that makes you want to stop making music because you know that no matter how hard you try and how good you become, you’re just playing for second. I’m aware art isn’t the Olympics, but seriously, it’s almost disheartening hearing something this good.
Old Ideas is nothing particularly new for Cohen, but there’s also nothing particularly wrong with that. His patented mixed of Vaudeville, folk, blues and relentlessly lamenting vocals that seem to tear your heart from your chest are all here in spades. “Show Me the Place” harkens back to the “Hallelujah” brand of uber-ballads that he’s the reigning grandmaster of, while “Darkness” sits at the more energetic end of Leo’s spectrum, combining smooth blues and jazz and includes a tasteful Hammond organ solo. The ironically named “Lullaby” is by no means the softest on the album and actually sits closer to the middle of the pack as far as intensity and tempo are concerned. Leo covers a lot of ground stylistically, and all of the songs seem to play off of different emotions or states of wellbeing. It’s interesting as the album progresses, because there isn’t an inherent flow to it, but the beauty lies within how little that actually matters. I can’t imagine another order working any better.
The production is near flawless with one irksome bit in the percussion on the right hand side during “Going Home,” the opening track (but I’m guessing that’s more of a personal thing than it is objectively bad). Lush strings and piano/keys accompany his booming voice in a majority of the tracks. A female chorus is present as a masterful counterbalance.
My only qualms with the album are a lack of particularly thoughtful lyrics on certain tracks, most notably on “Anyhow.” The lyrics are never bad exactly, and I suppose it’s better to be honest and forthright that relying on bloated metaphor. To be honest I’m not sure what I was expecting from the lyrics, but they just didn’t wow me as much as the rest of the album’s aspects did. Old Ideas does have its fair share of lyrical gems, though. The opening lines of the album are incredible: I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit. It’s simple and it’s breathtaking, and that’s who Leo is as a songwriter. He’s hardly an artist I’d ever consider groundbreaking, he just makes the music he wants – his simple songs – and they’re phenomenal regardless. He’s not out to impress anyone.