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A light for the lost
on February 4, 2012
Leonard Cohen has been old for a long time, yet it seems that something even older has been speaking through his voice for even longer. "I know my days are few", says the voice in one of these new songs, and those of us past 60 will perhaps best appreciate that feeling. But a deeper and far more universal feeling has come across in Cohen's music ever since his first album, and it's never been more authentic than it is in "Old Ideas".
What's old about this record, and yet again renewed, is "the penitential hymn" and the plea for mercy from an unbending Law and a Lord whose grace is given but rarely. Cohen's persona is at once the victim, the perpetrator and the observer, but never the innocent bystander, of life in this world -- rather a withstander, who stands with the rest of us even when we stand against each other. His time-ravaged voice, his words polished as rocks left behind by a glacier long ago, "gather up the brokenness" of all our hearts.
This time around we have ten songs of three to five minutes each, and every one is deeply resonant. As usual with Cohen, but more than ever here, the boundary line between speaking and singing, between poem and song, almost disappears. Yet this album is surprisingly tuneful -- not upbeat of course, but achingly melodic, and the arrangements bring this out with a variety of contributions from solo violin, cornet and other instruments. Indeed this is more varied musically than many of Cohen's records, each song having its own sound, and as we learn from the liner notes, its own set of producers, arrangers, engineers and musicians collaborating with Cohen. The women's voices (including those of Dana Glover, Sharon Robinson, the Webb Sisters, and Jennifer Warnes) are especially and variously wonderful here. (The liner notes also show us, by including scanned pages of Cohen's notebooks, the seemingly endless revision process of the poet -- and though all the lyrics are printed here, they don't always match the words you hear.)
In the one song which most resembles `the blues', the singer has "caught the darkness" like a contagious disease from the lover he's singing to, almost grimly proud that he's "got it worse than you." Yet in other songs we see "the darkness yielding," even if it yields only to the irony of being "saved by a blessed fatigue". But for me, the most intriguing of these "old ideas" is the intense dialogue between two sides of Leonard Cohen which we hear in the first and last song ("Going Home" and "Different Sides"). Here again is the old Cohen who is most universal when most personal, whose songs somehow let us hear something new just when we thought we'd plumbed the depth of their mystery. Old ideas? As old as "the wind in the trees talking in tongues."