Culture  Culture Brief

Leonard Cohen’s new album, Old Ideas

I spend my evenings wandering St. Denis near Marie-Anne, pining for a glimpse of the tall man in the flowing dark overcoat. The confluence of snow-capped pavement, drunken revelers, and store lights in the vast darkness of the Montreal night might as well be humming, “So Long Marianne,” as I am told Leonard Cohen, poet and prophet, sometimes sleeps nearby. As of yet, the exact location remains a house of mystery.

Fans of Westmount native and McGill alumnus Leonard Cohen have a new way to lift their spirits from the annual winter gloom. Old Ideas, released January 31, is Cohen’s first album of new material in eight years. Cohen – an incessantly mythic figure, born before Elvis, who came to light only after more than a decade as Canada’s favourite poet, merely adds to his mystique with age. Old Ideas is no exception to that habit.

Featured as a poem and sound clip in the New Yorker two weeks before official release, the opening track, “Going Home” is an instant masterpiece, and undoubtedly the finest gem on the album. At a CD-launch gathering in London, Cohen said, “I think this particular album invites you to be swept along with it.” Cohen leads you on the journey, as he has with earlier efforts, but now he’s seen more of the road—– and has aged during his travels.

In Going Home, we hear the Cohen who led us down to the river in “Suzanne,” the Cohen whose name claims ancestry from priests in the temple of Jerusalem. Here, Cohen is both Moses and Odysseus, in permanent exile from a home that in fact may never have existed.

While critics and listeners hail Old Ideas as a return to form, the songs are consistent with Cohen’s early songs only in theme – love, sorrow, sex, pain, and prostration, the idea of a return to form is as illusory as the concept of homeland.  Going Home offers an illusion of home, but the home we remember is never the one we experienced; one can never truly return home. The chorus, where Cohen sings, “going home without my burden/ going home behind the curtain/ going home without the costume that I wore” is like Moses accepting a life of wandering for salvation, or Odysseus, whose return home after ten grueling years at sea. is as cultural critic Svetlana Boym writes, “about nonrecognition.”

Cohen might return to old ideas, old forms, the scraps of songs and broken love, but he will never be old Leonard, as his gradually deepening voice confirms. Without a vision of the future, and unable to decipher the past, Cohen opens up the cavernous grace of his voice and says, “follow me.”

Nonetheless, like the melodious promise of a return to home, it’s a song I can’t stop listening to, and can’t get out of my head. You wouldn’t need to know that an entire album follows Going Home. After all, the Ten Commandments have kept people spiritually and intellectually stimulated for thousands of years.

Cohen’s 1960s-era music is unparalleled, but these are more developed musically, they are sharper, as is Cohen’s wisdom. Today Cohen offers a wider musical palette, more crisp production than when he was younger. Even as he’s matured, Cohen is still haunted poetically by all the things in the world which make him feel small.

Hailed by NPR as a “unique sound that brings the temple to the cabaret,” Old Ideas is as eminently cool and intensely poetic as Cohen’s ever been. At the release-party, Cohen also said,  “I was like Ronald Reagan in his declining years, who had a vague memory of playing a really great role of the president in a movie. I’d forgotten I was a singer so it felt good to feel like a worker in the world again.”

Another song, “Darkness,” could stand in for the entire album: part eulogy, part lament, part victory march, part party, and if this is Cohen, perhaps an orgy too.

In “Anyhow,” a song which rings heavy with the phrase, “both of us are guilty anyhow”, every word, like an onion, has hundreds of layers, and the more you pull each layer back, the more you can’t keep your eyelids dry.

While many critics note similarities to Bob Dylan’s 1997 record, Time Out of Mind, described as the “beginning of Dylan’s epic lion-in-winter phase,” Dylan’s roots are in early blues singers and guitarists. Alternatively, Cohen’s musical roots are in poetry and early folk music. Cohen came of age before rock-and-rollers perfected the formula for preteen screams, and he’s always been an elder statesmen not because he came before the others, but – with the exception of the embarrassing 1980s – he has always seemed wise beyond age. Unlike Dylan, who has become earnestly morose – and wacky – with age, Cohen, for all his prophetic attributes, won’t let you take himself too seriously.

The closing track, “Different Sides”, with its opening organ shots like the opening of a new world or dawning of an age, seems based on a ridiculous erotic premise, but we might have to take the Ladies’ Man at his nearly octogenarian word. Cohen moans, “you want to change the way I make love, but / I want to leave it alone.” It seems less about resistance to change as about the desire to explore the same hallowed grounds that inevitably change with time.