Fri, Feb 10, 2012.
When Leonard Cohen opened his world tour here in Fredericton at The Playhouse on May 11, 2008, it was a glorious event. While it could have been simply a last love-in for a senior taking a farewell jaunt, the wiley veteran proved he had the chops to continue, and had lost none of his abilty to captivate. What should have been a retirement trip was in fact the start of a new phase, one that would see him on the road for two years, and most surprisingly, offering new tunes on stage, and the promise of another album.
That was welcome news, but not entirely exciting. After all, his most recent releases, after the later-period thrills of I'm Your Man and The Future, were the underwhelming Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004). He made nods to them on the tour, but really his reputation for a new generation was anchored in legend, and the unexpected revival of Hallelujah. The idea of a new, and stunning Cohen album seemed chancy at best. Of course, I never thought he'd start a world tour in Fredericton, either, let alone play possibly the greatest concert event I've ever witnessed, when he was 73. Now he's 77.
Old Ideas is not only better than I had expected, it is a significant work by a vibrant artist, obviously bouyed by his recent success. Everything you want from Cohen is here, plus a few surprises. There are songs of the highest lyrical quality, his hallmark since the start of his music career. With his experience, he learned long ago that economy is more important than verbiage, and the search for the perfect word and phrase would serve him better than haste. Cohen's wit is present as well, playing off his image, as he did with I'm Your Man. The disc opens with Going Home, and the very first lines we hear are "I love to speak with Leonard/He's a sportsman and a shepherd/He's a lazy bastard/Living in a suit." It's a fascinating number that seems to be about the difference between the public and on-stage Cohen and who he feels he really is: "He wants to write a love song/An anthem of forgiving/A manual for living with defeat."
Defeat? Love is defeat? Crap. He's probably right, and that little zinger is just tossed off in the midst of one number. As usual, love in all its agony and ecstasy is a major theme here, even after the fact, on Anyhow, where our boy tries to lesson a guilty conscious: "Have mercy on me baby/After all I did confess/Even though you have to hate me/Could you hate me less?" It's lines like these that draw us into the songs, and the album is full of them.
His other main song source, again something that has remained constant, is religion, combining these classic images with personal writing. In Show Me The Place (which features a welcome return of vocalist Jennifer Warnes), the images are from the Resurrection, the singer asking "help me roll away the stone", but it's another relationship song, our man willing to suffer for the love of one just as Jesus did for the love of all. Only L.C. could pull that lyric off.
Part of the success of that, and a couple of other songs, comes from the production and arrangements, which cast these songs closer to hymns than Cohen has ever come. Credit the various producers and arrangers here, because the disc features a varied bunch of styles and collaborations, and this is more good news. Both Ten New Songs and Dear Heather felt like Cohen was leaning too heavily on both Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas, and while both return here, they are part of the team, with Cohen seeming more in control of the overall plan, and more interested as well. Patrick Leonard and Ed Sanders are most prominant, but it always feels like Cohen's song. Even the co-writing credits are way down, Cohen solely responsible for five of the ten tracks.
One last and pleasant surprise comes at the start of the second half of the album. Until then, Old Ideas had sounded like the usual modern Cohen disc, spare but precise instrumentation, not as synth-heavy perhaps, very good for sure. But on Crazy To Love You, we get the return of the original Leonard, as the song features the nylon-string guitar with which his early hits are associated. It's Cohen's nod to his younger self, and might even be in answer to his son Adam, who recently released his own disc of nylon stringed tunes, saying he'd been bugging the old man to return to that sound for years. It is welcome, and as usual wise. Just a taste, not a return, that's not growth.
Listening through, the biggest surprise is what Cohen didn't do on this disc. He didn't go back, he moved forward, and strongly. He got better, like any artist wants, and even though his age is there, it's not the topic, not the excuse, not really considered. Unlike contemporaries Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, there are no ruminations on what things have changed. For Cohen, nothing really has in his work, and the work is all-important, which is why he "love(s) to speak with Leonard". He's our man, skipping into the future.
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Bob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).