I had the pleasure of watching Cohen perform at Coachella in 2009. I couldn't stay for the whole performance, just 3 or so songs, but I made sure "Hallelujah" was one of them. It's over-covered and most people think of it as Jeff Buckley song, but to see the man perform it himself, on a massive warmly lit stage with a hushed thousand others was special. I was already a fan, but after that I became an enthusiast.
When it was announced that he was coming out with a new album in 2012, I was on board. It was hard not to treat it as the celebrated return of a master. It always feels like an event when one of the veteran songwriters, the class of living legends like Dylan, Waits and Young, comes back to add another chapter to their canon. What made Cohen special was that he was far less prolific. His period of seclusion at a Buddhist monastery took him out of the studio for a long time, and even when he returned to us, he didn't exactly launch a comeback. It had been 8 years since his last studio album.
He wants to write a love song, an anthem of forgiving,
A manual for living with defeat.
A cry above the suffering, a sacrifice recovering,
But that isn't what I want him to complete.
(Track 1, Going Home)
At long last, OLD IDEAS is here, and it's a gorgeous, weighty work. Cohen's writing has always been deeply poetic and meaningful in its pain and his old age has given him the tools to italicize these traits. The result is a remarkable gravity. Every song bears an emotional burden that is both heavy and peaceful, like a stillwater lake or soft rain at midnight. It taps into the inherent, silent sadness that comes with intimate isolation.
Behold the gates of mercy in arbitrary space,
And none of us deserving the cruelty or the grace.
Oh solitude of longing, where love has been confined
Come healing of the body, come healing of the mind.
Oh see the darkness yielding that tore the light apart,
Come healing of the reason, come healing of the heart.
(Track 6, Come Healing)
Cohen has always been adept at grave seriousness, but his aged voice and restrained production achieve levels normally reserved for church hymns. In the way that a traditional choir song, in the echoes of a church, can sound powerful as they break through the silence, so does OLD IDEAS. Tapping into the sounds of sacred atmospheres isn't a new trick. Today, bands like WU LYF and Arcade Fire have recorded in abandoned churches as inspiration, and they try to capture the feeling with pipe organs and big shouts. Cohen foregoes the tricks and works with his knowledge of intimacy. The quiet isolation brings about the vague dread of confessional booths, and there's no more appropriate place for a Leonard Cohen song.
That gravity I'm talking about is apparent from the beginning on opening track, "Going Home." It's a song where Cohen takes the role of the voice in his head -- maybe his soul, maybe his doubt, maybe the devils of fame or the devil himself. Cohen in this personal, confessional mode portrays the scariness of doubt, and it's like hearing the regrets of your grandfather. It's not solely because he sounds older -- if he were 30, but still wrote with this kind of insight and stern poeticism, it would feel just as mythic.
I'm naked and I'm filthy and there's sweat upon my brow
And both of us are guilty anyhow
Have mercy on me baby, after all I did confess
Even though you have to hate me, could you hate me less?
(Track 4, Anyhow)
The holiest-sounding of the songs is "Come Healing," which so blatantly and effectively mimics the singular, solitary power of choir. If you don't pay attention to the lyrics -- if you just listen to the echo chamber effect, the angelic keys and divine backup vocals -- it would easily be mistaken for a hymn. Cohen knows this, and crafts a song that captures the closeness, divinity and solace that a prayer is supposed to feel like. It has an illusion of comfort to it, they often are when we cast them out into the darkness, but the desperation here squashes the simplicity of feelgood hope.
A lot will be written about his voice in 2012. His baritone is his trademark, but Jarvis Cocker, while interview COhen, observed that it had somehow gotten deeper. Compared to his 2004 album, you can definitely hear the 77 years in his throat. Every word feels like a strain -- his vowels disappear into near breath-less whispers, like the sound people make when they die in movies. His range seems almost constrained by his age, so he works entirely in a lower register. Painting with darker shades, he creates an aged sorrow whenever his voice breaks on lines like "I loved you like aaa.... slave." It may seem like belting out every line requires all he's got, but if you've seen him in concert or heard his recent live album, you know that he can sing with no problem. The strain is an aesthetic choice, but all that matters is that it's convincing.
Sometimes I head for the highway,
I'm old and the mirrors don't lie.
But crazy has places to hide in that are deeper than any goodbye.
(Track 5, Crazy To Love You)
The closest to "fun" that this album gets is "Banjo." That's not an insult. Fun is overrated. But "Banjo" feels more like an exercise in folksiness with a little bit of blues twang to it. Folk singers tend to have some tracks that feel like observational writing exercises, and this is Leonard Cohen singing about eyeing a banjo in the water. As far as I can tell that's not a metaphor for something monolithic and terrifying, although he sings cryptically "It's comin' for me darling, no matter where I go, it's duty is to harm me, my duty is to know," with a lounge singer's laid back relaxation.
I'm tired of choosing desire
I've been saved by a blessed fatigue.
The gates of committment are unwired
and nobody is trying to leave.
If I had to pick a bone, it would be with the production. When Cohen toured the world in 2009, he was followed by a pretty great band that worked in a lush, jazzy sonic space. It was full of flourish and depth, but they don't follow him into the studio. On DEAR HEATHER we were given a dated tinny sound quality that wouldn't be out of place as a MIDI. It returns in OLD IDEAS, but fortunately, the overall reeling back means there's less of it. I would love to hear some of these songs with three dimensional instrumentation, like a thick stand-up bass as opposed to this buzzing electronic one. But they don't overpower the song and stay in the wings when it matters.
At best, the instrumentation breaks even. On "Amen," it starts out with a flat, trudging bass and a silly tremolo, the kind of noise that would soundtrack a cartoon scene where the characters are drunk. Some very 80's backup singers seep in after some strings that aren't particularly elegant. But, driven by Cohen's raspy, gravelly voice, the atmosphere changes. Now, it's a dark red, seductive and noir. By the time the horn solo comes in, it has adopted its own charm.
The troubles came, I saved what I could save;
A thread of light, a particle, a wave.
But there were chains, so I hastened to the hay
There were chains, so I loved you like a slave.
(Track 3, Show Me The Place)
Album of the year so far. I know that doesn't mean much at the end of January, but I wouldn't be surprised if it stayed strong through all 12 months to stay in my personal top 10. In the aforementioned Jarvis Cocker interview, Cohen likened the act of songwriting to raising your glass and doing a little jig in the face of unyielding gods. In his songs, life's troubles are immortal and your only act of protest is futile — but that's why doing it is so meaningful. The song is powerful and defiant, even if it doesn't change anything.