The minor fall and the major lift, from one lazy bastard living in a suit: Leonard Cohen’s “Old Ideas”
Leonard Cohen exists in a rarified pantheon of living artists. He is a man who has seen his own work and personal mythos effloresce into the eminence of legend, a poet laureate of the sacred and profane, beautitude and lust, wordly wisdom and the nexus between spiritual transcendence and earthly prurience. For my part I can make that cliched assertion that I recall with lucid precision where I was when I first heard the music of Cohen, and the instant impact it had upon me. The sudden shifts from naked vulnerability to fearless howls of recrimination, the comic darkness mingling with the classical language and biblical phantasmagoria, the lyrical imagery at once so oblique and so intimate and immediate. The poetic economy of the record’s artwork also; a stark black and white photo of the artist, several days stubble and hair in long unkempt tresses, flanked by blocky white text- “Songs of Love and Hate”.
It was clear through these songs, hallucinatory character studies in loneliness, sex, betrayal, defeat, and courage, that love and hate were to Cohen not spiritual issues to be conquered or even comprehended, but divine mysteries to be regarded with penitent awe.
Cohen’s most recent album, cannily entitled “Old Ideas”, doesn’t stray too distantly from his usual sources of inspiration, though there is a pronounced and notable emphasis on the spector of mortality. “I’m old”, he confesses at one point, “and the mirrors don’t lie”. Opening track “Going Home” seems to be told from the perspective of Cohen’s own poetic muse, at once honoring and admonishing him for his particular ambitions; reminding him that “he only has permission/ to do my instant bidding/ which is to say what I’ve told him to repeat”, not to write the “manual on living with defeat” that he has so nobly yet arrogantly set out to compose for his listeners and, more so, for himself. Sonically “Old Ideas” is a more diverse recording than anything Cohen has released in many decades, though it doesn’t entirely lack the electro-sheen of his previous smattering of releases from the last twenty five years or so. It also presents the first time since his earliest recordings where Leonard accompanies himself solely with a patiently finger picked classical guitar, on the beautiful ode “Crazy to Love You”. ”I had to go crazy to love you”, he intones in his earthy baritone, to nobody, somebody, or all of us at once, “and crazy has places to hide in/ deeper than any goodbye”; love, loss, and the transience of all living and knowing captured in one devastating koan, channeled by our greatest living master of song. Whether this is a romantic elegy or a Socratic meditation on life and death is irrelevant; in the poetic lexicon of Leonard Cohen such a distinction is illusory.