This review was originally published at Listen Before You Buy.
This record hit 2012 like the spotlight hits an old lounge singer in a seedy jazz club. With hushed, husky vocals, Leonard Cohen sounds a bit like a reformed prisoner who has just returned to the outside world from jail. While this is his first record in eight years, and though it may be riddled with puzzles, it is by no means disappointing. Cohen has entered that group of singer/songwriter legends who are standing in the doorway of death. Perhaps this is why he religious, superstitious and grave in a way that he never has before. Actually, the feel and sound of this album remind me in many ways of Dylan’s “Time Out Of Mind”, the record he released after a similar break of about seven years without any new material.
“Old Ideas” starts with a overtly titled track called ‘Going Home’ that threads a third-person narration of “Leonard” his faults, flaws and hopes are discussed in relation to his life, death and accomplishments. He sings “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 tube.” The paradox he creates here is one of puppet and puppeteer, of import and insignificance, poetry that moves me to consider echelons higher than the one I normally find my thoughts dwelling. This poetry that sets Cohen apart is back in full force. Invoking imagery in the same breath from rehab and a church pew on ‘Amen’ Cohen deftly combines the threads of life into songs that prick and pique my interest like never before.
One of the puzzles of the record is why in the world Cohen allowed the thick coating of female back up singers on his songs. Almost every song feels draped in streamers as soon as these voices show up, which is astonishingly often, and they turn every track into a song that sounds like a parody of itself. Sometimes he leaves off vocally altogether and the chorus of gospel-bound harmonies bounces right over and through his poetry without any recognition of what it stands for, what it means. I found this to be a facet of the record that actually disgusted me, it felt cookie cutter but it also felt inconsistent.
Filled with curve balls, even after a solid few days with the record I keep uncovering new twists and turns. My favorite track is ‘Banjo’ near the end of the record. Although still filled with these chintzy female back up singers (really it is astonishing how often they show up), they almost feel appropriate on this track. First Cohen declares “There’s something that I’m watching / Means a lot to me” and after this intriguing opening goes straight into what could be a line from Mother Goose “It’s a broken banjo boppin’ on the dark, infested sea.” The bopping nature of this song and Cohen’s own hint of a smile in his pronunciation make this track a delight to hear.
The themes of death and growing old appear in most of the tracks, including ‘Darkness’ which almost sounds like it could be off of “Time Out Of Mind” with its heavy dose of organ and Cohen’s vocals at their lowest and most foreboding. Love and growing old seems to be another irreconcilable topic for Cohen as both ‘Crazy To Love You’ and ‘Different Sides’ deal with twisting effects that time have on love and what a relationship becomes.
Sometimes he sounds straight out of a saloon, sometimes he sounds like a like a pulpit-pounding preacher, sometimes he could be a cheerful grandfather singing his grandchildren a silly ditty, and sometimes Leonard Cohen sounds like a veritable legend. Whatever your degree of contact and connection with this record, it becomes apparent even upon a cursory listen, that despite its flaws, this collection of songs is the work of a musical genius and a true legend.