These days, Leonard Cohen – who turned a gruff 77 last September – doesn’t sing so much as narrate. On Old Ideas, Cohen’s 12th record in 44 years, his voice is almost unbearably rich – quit-smoking deep, heavy lidded, and near hypnotic in its weariness. Cohen’s always been a commanding performer, but there’s something particularly indisputable about his presence here: It’s as if important secrets are calmly being imparted, as if we’re getting handed a map for navigating love, sorrow, and all the wild nuances in between. Who wouldn’t listen, and closely?
Opener “Going Home” (which was first published as a poem in The New Yorker) sees Cohen taking metaphysical stock over a yawning little string melody that, on its own, would be heartbreaking enough. Confiding secrets in the third person, Cohen (it’s possible, of course, that he’s talking about some other Leonard, a different sportsman and shepherd, another “lazy bastard living in a suit”) delivers a series of devastating zingers, skewering the creeping sense of phoniness that haunts anyone who’s ever accomplished anything. “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,” Cohen intones. Elsewhere, Cohen is less fatalistic about his past. “Darkness” opens with a spare guitar figure before the rest of his band (sounding, here, like a less raucous iteration of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue) revs up, and Cohen – his voice especially bemused, almost lustful – recalls all the trouble he’s gotten in. “You were young and it was summer/ I just had to take a dive,” he recalls.
Cohen is still an unmatchable lyrical wit, pithily articulating things (“I had to go crazy to love you”) we’ve all thought at one time or another, and his insights are well-matched by frugal instrumentation (he’s finally eschewing the goofy synthesizers that muddled his most recent records). While his delivery can be deadpan or even purposefully a-melodic, it’s impossible to get through Old Ideas without a few moments of catharsis. The oldest ideas, after all, have endured for a reason.