HOLY (WHOLLY) EXISTENTIAL SENSUALIST Leonard Cohen

leonardcohenoldideas

With Old Ideas, out Tuesday on Columbia, the Bard has made the best full
album of his career. Hallelujah.

BY A.D. AMOROSI

For his first studio album of new material in eight years,
Leonard Cohen starts with a third person’s reminiscence on “Going Home”: a
deprecating quip that glove-slaps Old
Ideas
into bleakly humorous first gear as it toys with its master of
ceremonies.

 

Against a humming, plinking keyboard line produced and
played by Patrick Leonard (responsible for some of Madonna’s best), the
rasping, gravelly baritone slowly intones (as if there was any other way) the
words “I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy
bastard/Living in a suit.” Later in that same game song, the Zen-Buddhist
Jewish-Canadian writer-singer continues, “I want to make him certain/That he
doesn’t have a burden/that he doesn’t need a vision.”

 

Easy for him to say.

 

Vision – his old ideas, the best ideas – is what guides
Cohen in matters of sexuality, decay and renewal, always has in what’s become a
philosophical decretum. If a holy existential sensualist is required, Leonard
Cohen alone fills that niche. This is a man who chose prayer in a monastery
over releasing music for a time – he’s the king of the blank generation and can
take it or leave it each time.

 

The willing flesh. The weakened spirits. Making that closer
walk with thee. Standing in the shadows of love. Looking for the cash he lost.
(I was struck silent, though I’m uncertain why, during “Darkness” when veiled
matters of money came up a la “I thought the past would last me/ But the darkness
got that, too.”)

 

Those ideas happily haunt Old Ideas. This time though, the epiphany – bliss meeting the
banal, an elder’s blunt symphony to the beyond – calls “bullshit” on itself.
Honest and odd as it may be, the epiphany is a gamble, a canard. “He will speak
these words of wisdom/Like a sage, a man of vision….Though he knows he’s
really nothing.”

 

Two scenes form two different Woody Allen films come to mind
here – both reliant on the enlightened, both a trick of the truth. One, Love & Death, has Allen asking the
town’s wise rabbinical elder the secret to life only to get the answer “blond
12-year-old girls.”

The other comes in the more modern Crimes and Misdemeanors where Allen, after spending years filming a
philosophical genius recalling his philosophical screeds, faces the suicide of
his subject with disappointment. It seems as if the master has left one last
note to his believers: “gone fishing.”

 

Old Ideas has that
sort-of devilishness about it, in that it’s an exaltation and an assault on Cohen’s
sacred/profane intellectualism. There is forgiveness. And then some. That
rubbed-raw richness is most prominent on the cool carnival of “Amen;” dire for
certain, apocalyptic, even, but
playful. “Tell me again that you know what I’m thinking,” he grumble-purrs
before coughing out “the filth of the butcher/is washed in the blood of the
lamb.”

 

The words trickle so effortlessly perhaps because they are
canonical. A priest rarely stumbles during his sermon, a rabbi rarely blunders
his prayer. There are surprising references to the tower of song he erected as
a young opportunistic folkie (most particularly on the softly acoustic “Crazy
to Love You”) then a synth-stringing crooner of what he once called European
blues. Sonically, the ghosts of delicate sympathetic instrumentation (this is
his best, most diverse sounding album since the country/gypsy cabaret mix of
1985’s Various Positions) and deeply
memorable melody aid his cause. Rather than rely on dense, stern synthesizers
and heavy girl-voice backgrounds, those are kept
to a spare minimum here. Everything is kept
to a minimalist’s delight on Old Ideas. Ten short songs. Get in. Make the
message count. Get out.

 

 

 

 

The southern gospel groove and cheerfully funeral piano line
of “Show Me the Place” sounds as if it had been grandfathered in from Tom
Waits’ “I Wish I Was in New Orleans.”
The nylon-strung blues of “Darkness” with its leering organs and barroom tinkle
seem like a snippy counterpoint to its lyrical please for joy in the face of
being gypped. There are plenty of blues to found within Old Ideas – the slow swinging kind on “Anyhow” where a fretless
bass comes across as the voice of hopeful forgiveness; the yawning countrified
sort on “Banjo”; the waltzing, harmonica-honking “Lullaby.”

 

By the time the finale crawls along (and there is a theatrical
start-finish feel to this: thank Cohen the novelist and poet for that sense of
drama) and “Different Sides” unfolds, a steadily pumping organ’s sinister
melody gives us the story of a couple on opposite ends of a line that nobody
drew and nobody knew. Cattily meretricious in a fashion that would do Noel
Coward proud, Cohen rumbles churlishly. “Both
of us say there are laws to obey/But frankly I don’t like your tone/You want to
change the way I make love/I want to leave it alone.”
The gaudy division,
the great divorce; once one under a higher eye, here they are two. Yet before
the song’s end – and who knows for certain if Cohen is returning to the third
person of that first Old Ideas track,
“Going Home” – the bard sucks the air from the verse when he states, “Stop
writing everything down.”

Hallelujah.

 

With that, Leonard Cohen has made the best full album of his
career (song for song, sound for sound, lyrical point for point; yes, this is
true) and most certainly the best album of 2012. If at the end of this year you
find otherwise, correct me. I’m certain though that my righteousness, like
Leonard Cohen’s is irrefutable.

 

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