Above all else, Leonard Cohen is a poet. Yes, his work is fleshed by beats and tones - held by bones of melody – but the blood, the fundamental vigour, is words. On all of his albums the lyrics are a defining feature; but arguably the words are sometimes sunk by the music that surrounds them – an overly saccharine synth, a backing vocal that dominates. Not on “Old Ideas”. Here his lyrics are pulled into sharp focus, buoyed by the arrangements and carried by the un-affected vessel of his voice. It’s a true return to form.
As one might expect from Cohen, “Old Ideas” broaches the concerns he has been pondering for over half a century – life, death, love and lust – filtered through a ferocious wit and delivered via a hush of deadpan baritone. In “The Darkness” for example, Cohen quips “I got no future / I know my days are few / The present’s not that pleasant / just a lot of things to do”. He’s backed by a strutting guitar, a swaggering organ and a sweep of female vocals. It is a delicious cut of unapologetic blues, as if JJ Cale had collaborated with a mischief-making Poe. His band are uniformly excellent, perhaps a happy consequence of two years of touring.
If anything, the instrumentation on “Old Ideas” could be more consistently adventurous, considering the fine musicians at his disposal; the tracks featuring inventive arrangements are highlights of the album. “Banjo” for example, builds around a solo of its namesake to a blissful refrain of brass and piano; a glimpse of Van Dyke Parks on the Southern State veranda.
The closing “Different Sides” is another stand out track on the release. Possessing the immortal lines: “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 lyrics are italicised by a raised inflection (and, one might assume a raised eyebrow), highlighted by the breathy repetitions of his co-vocalists.
It is interesting to hear the sheer breadth of Cohen’s influence on “Old Ideas” – a rare instance where the influencer is producing work concurrently (or even post) the influenced. For example “Show Me The Place” boasts the bittersweet languor of The Pogues whilst “Amen” mirrors the gothic bravado of Nick Cave. It’s as if Milton was still writing in the lifetime of Blake (reaching full circle with Camus).
I have heard murmured suggestions that “Old Ideas” will be the final album of the celebrated septuagenarian. One can only hope this is not the case. Famously, Cohen concluded that: “poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” If “Old Ideas” is anything to go by, there is plenty of fuel yet to burn.