Friday, February 3, 2012

Leonard Cohen: "Old Ideas" (2012) CD Review

Leonard Cohen is the best living songwriter. It's as simple as that. It's strange to me that there are still many people who are unaware of who he is. After all, his songs have been covered by a large number of artists, including Judy Collins, U2, R.E.M., Pixies, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, John Cale, Neil Diamond, Martha Wainwright, Linda Thompson and Concrete Blonde. And his songs have been used in films like Breaking The Waves, Pump Up The Volume, A Wedding and Natural Born Killers. And he's put out some incredible records.

And now at age 77 , he's released a new batch of tunes under the title Old Ideas.

Like a lot of fans who caught shows on his recent world tour, I was hoping that "Feels So Good" and "Born In Chains" would be included on this release. But my disappointment at the absence of those particular songs evaporated the moment I put the disc in. This is an incredible album.

Of course, it's true that I'm a bit overwhelmed at getting to enjoy all this new material - and it's uncertain just where this record will fit into his overall output after a few years of listening to it - but my initial reaction is that this is among his best recordings.

Here are some thoughts...

"Going Home" - A song about the relationship between Leonard the person and Leonard the performer. This isn't the first song in which he's written about himself or included his own name in a lyric. "Famous Blue Raincoat" comes to mind, in which he signs the letter (thus, the song), "Sincerely, L. Cohen." And more recently, on his 2004 release Dear Heather, he presented "Because Of," in which he has women sing, "Look at me, Leonard." Present in this song, as in "Because Of," is his wonderful sense of humor. He refers to himself as "a lazy bastard living in a suit." The line, "Going home without the costume that I wore" makes me wonder if this was written right at the end of his world tour.

"Amen" - One of Leonard Cohen's most famous songs is "Hallelujah" (from 1984's Various Positions - one of my favorite records). And now he gives us "Amen." It's interesting how often Leonard Cohen uses religious imagery and language in his songs, and he seems to take those lofty words and ideas and bring them down to a human level of sweat and desire. And in doing so, to raise the physical to a more spiritual level. And that raises us all, doesn't it? This is one of the CD's best songs. The music is beautiful (Robert Korda is on violin). And of course the lyrics are excellent, with lines like "Tell me again/When the day has been ransomed/And the night has no right to begin/Try me again/When the angels are panting/And scratching at the door to come in."

"Show Me The Place" - Leonard has that great deep voice that makes your body quiver and your soul smile. In this one, he sings, "But there were chains/So I hastened to behave/There were chains/So I loved you like a slave." Oh man. And that's Jennifer Warnes singing the woman's parts.

"Darkness" - This is the one I knew before, having seen him perform it in concert a few times. The first time was in San Jose in 2009, and I was totally blown away. I might have been crying, laughing - I don't know - I was three or four feet above my skin, and recollections are emotionally charged so I'm not sure of their accuracy. "I thought the past would last me/But the darkness got that too." This song is so damn cool, so sexy, with lines like "You were young and it was summer/I just had to take a dive" and "I ain't had much lovin' yet/But that's always been your call." And the full band from his tour is present on this track, which is wonderful.

"Anyhow" - Leonard Cohen makes even the most twisted of relationships sound appealing. "I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less." When he sings, "I'm naked and I'm filthy," I think how I'd love to be even one tenth as sexy at 40 as he is at 77.

"Crazy To Love You" - It's so great to hear a song with just acoustic guitar and vocals, reminiscent of his earliest material. This is one of the album's best tracks (perhaps my favorite, if I were forced to choose). The first line is "Had to go crazy to love you." And I love these lines: "But crazy has places to hide in/That are deeper than any goodbye." A phrase like "souvenir heartache" shows you just what an excellent writer he is. So much is said with two words.

"Come Healing" - Angelic voices open this song, singing for nearly a minute before Leonard Cohen comes in. This is an uplifting and hopeful tune with lines like "Come healing of the body/Come healing of the mind."

"Banjo" - This song has a playful spirit, and is a bit silly and delightful. It finds a "broken banjo bobbing/On the dark, infested sea." The wind took it from someone, and now Leonard Cohen watches it. I think of a banjo as a bright and happy instrument, and in this song it is then positioned in a "dark, infested sea." I love this song, and it features Dino Soldo and Neil Larsen, two members of The Unified Heart Touring Band.

"Lullaby" - The first of the new material presented on Leonard Cohen's world tour was "Lullaby." Unfortunately, I wasn't present at any of those particular shows. So this is my first exposure to it. Here's a taste of the lyrics: "Well the mouse ate the crumb/Then the cat ate the crust/Now they've fallen in love/And they're talking in tongues/If your heart is torn/I don't wonder why/If the night is long/Here's my lullaby/Here's my lullaby." And yes, it's a perfect song to listen to before drifting off to sleep. Sharon Robinson sings on this track (she also sings on "Amen," "Darkness" and "Banjo").

"Different Sides" - I love the opening line, "We find ourselves on different sides/Of a line nobody drew." This song feels a bit like his late 1980s, early 1990s material - the steady rhythm, the keyboard. That's Neil Larsen on the Hammond B3, piano, the synth bass and percussion on this track. The last line of this song, and thus the album, is "You want to change the way I make love/But I want to leave it alone."

CD Track List
  1. Going Home
  2. Amen
  3. Show Me The Place
  4. Darkness
  5. Anyhow
  6. Crazy To Love You
  7. Come Healing
  8. Banjo
  9. Lullaby
  10. Different Sides
Old Ideas was released January 31, 2012.

Now I hope Leonard Cohen gets right to work on the next release (with "Feels So Good" and "Born In Chains"). I'm also hoping he'll follow through on the tentative plans to release the final concert of the tour on CD and/or DVD. There was some talk of it at the time, but that it wouldn't happen until after this studio release came out. That live album would give us "Born In Chains," but unfortunately not "Feels So Good."

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