Back in 1988, Leonard Cohen, whilst promoting his album I’m Your Man, said he’d just read in a newspaper that as you get older, “the brain cells connected with anxiety begin to die, and you start feeling a lot better”. 24 years later, Cohen repeated the same neurological titbit in an interview with the Observer, crediting his overall better mood to this process of ageing.
But Cohen, not unfairly caricatured as rock’s Don of Despair, is a man for whom sounding downbeat has long been a way of life. Resolutely philosophical, Cohen has specialised in ruminations on the relative merits of death and birth, religion and spirituality, hatred and horniness since he first put pen to paper back in 1956.
It would be something of a shock then if ‘Laughing Lenny’, the ironic nickname given to Cohen by journalists in reference to his less than chirpy demeanour, suddenly made an appearance on Old Ideas.
Thankfully, any fears that Cohen has lightened up as he has matured are quashed by the self-referential lyrics in the powerful opener ‘Going Home’. “I’d love to speak with Leonard”, Cohen tells us, “he’s a sportsman and a shepherd, he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit… He will speak these words of wisdom like a sage, a man of vision, though he knows he’s really nothing but the brief elaboration of a tune”.
Old Ideas is defined by Cohen’s growing sense of his own mortality, and listening to the characteristically confessional and intensely stirring songs together is hugely engrossing. The grizzled 77 year old, one of the few songwriters journalists can call a poet without it sounding conceited, is as brilliantly lugubrious and self-deprecating as ever throughout.
‘Darkness’ is a particular highlight, during which he growls, “I’ve got no future, I know my days are few”. Few expected Cohen to write another classic to join the likes of ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ after so long out of the game- but this timeless song rises very near to the top of his canon.
Cohen’s unfeasibly deep voice charges every song with an indomitable sense of importance. He makes today’s most eminent baritone vocalists, such as Nick Cave or Matt Berninger from The National, sound fit only to serve as backing singers for Alvin & The Chipmunks. When Cohen sings, “I’m naked and I’m filthy, there is sweat upon my brow” on ‘Anyhow’, the seismic rumblings are of such a force that they risk dangerously interfering with any Richter scale that may be nearby.
But as the overtly hymnal ‘Come Healing’, and laborious ‘Lullaby’ testify, not every song on the album is vintage Cohen. However, occasional overbearing female vocals aside, each song’s modest production ensures nothing sounds pompous or dated, which is where some of Cohen’s latter day synth-infused albums have come a cropper. Instead, a classy, jazz-inflected style defines the understated instrumentation, purpose built for Cohen’s sonorous waltzes.
‘Crazy To Love You’, simply an acoustic guitar straddled by Cohen’s bottomless voice, is very much early-era Len, and will no doubt transport many diehards back to the bedsit in which they first heard the so called ‘Master of Erotic Despair’. Then, closing the album, ‘Different Sides’ is typical Cohen, playing his own relationship counsellor in a confrontation with a sultry female vocal.
Over the course of the album it becomes clear that Cohen is much too wise to even attempt reinventing himself for any new generation(s). He simply doesn’t need to, and so Old Ideas sees him playing entirely to his strengths.