Sunday, August 7, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 898: Leonard Cohen

My weekend has been jammed with activity. Despite all the fun I’ve had I find myself on a Sunday morning happy for the first real respite from all the revelry since I walked out of my office on Friday afternoon.

Disc 898 is….Old Ideas
Artist: Leonard Cohen

Year of Release: 2012

What’s up with the Cover? Leonard lounges in the backyard, trying to come up with some old ideas. The ideas are new, but he’s old, thus creating various tensions in how you’re supposed to understand the title. As an aside, no one rocks a black suit like Leonard; he puts the Blues Brothers to shame.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve been a fan of Leonard Cohen for a very long time, so when he put out a new album I bought it despite the fact that his previous record (2004’s “Dear Heather”) was truly terrible.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 12 of Cohen’s studio albums and 1 live record. Of the 12 studio albums “Old Ideas” can only manage 11th best, but that’s because Cohen has so many great records.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

After some musical experimentation on his previous two records (“Ten New Songs” and “Dear Heather),” “Old Ideas” is a return to the mix of jazz, lounge and folk that made “I’m Your Man” and “The Future” such great records.

“Old Ideas” was Cohen’s first new album in eight years, and made at the tender age of 77 and from the title through the final track, Cohen seems determined to stay current and keep looking forward, musically and thematically. For the most part he succeeds.

The opening track, “Going Home” sees Cohen returning to the oft-visited topic of the process and compulsion of writing. It’s a topic he knows well after six decades of songwriting, and he approaches it with his signature mix of self-deprecation and wry humour:

“I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit.

“But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
To refuse.”

Gorgeous stuff and a reminder that Cohen’s poetic muse has never abandoned him – he still writes the best lyrics you’ll find in music.

In later years, as Cohen’s voice has gotten more gravelly and less certain, he has brought in more musical flourishes and background singers to hit the high notes he can’t manage. It works beautifully. “Amen” is a good (if slightly overlong) example, with soft horns playing here and there, and a violin adding restrained but beautiful solo where the song needs it.

Backing vocals are provided by the Webb Sisters, as Leonard can’t resist recording and touring with young, beautiful women (in concert they even do a synchronized cartwheel). The Webbs are as good as anyone Leonard has brought into his circle, and given his ability to attract great musicians over the years, that is saying something.

The album’s highlight is “Darkness” a song that opens with an ominous bass-line that brings a sense of dread to the entire track, even after the  rest of the instruments cut in to create a toe-tapping blues-groove. “Darkness” finds Cohen in a somber mood, thinking of loss and feeling a little more worn down than usual:

“I got no future
I know my days are few
The present’s not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too.”

The up-tempo rhythm of the song reminds us that even when Leonard is down, he never forgets to revel in the feeling a little; an essential skill for any poet.

Come Healing” has a hymnal quality, and the combination of the majestic keyboards of Neil Larson and the Webb Sisters’ harmonies are the perfect backdrop to a song that promises succor and rescue from the dark mania expressed earlier on “Darkness.”

After “Come Healing” the record loses momentum and the next two tracks - “Banjo” and “Lullaby” - and had me feeling fidgety and ready to be done. I can’t put my finger on what disappointed me. Are the lyrics not as strong, or is it the production decisions and arrangement? I suspect a bit of both.

The final track (“Different Sides”) is the poppiest of the bunch, and ends the record on an up tempo. Again, Cohen juxtaposes the catchy tune with what is essentially a fight with a lover.

Cohen’s voice on the record definitely shows signs of age, but he’s written the music to keep the tune in his comfort zone, and both the arrangements and production fill in any of the flat areas where Cohen can’t carry it. The best thing about never having the greatest singing voice is that the step down as he ages hasn’t been as big a deal for Cohen. Also, he has learned over the years to try out new phrasing within the bar that keeps things interesting.

While “Old Ideas” doesn’t have the same high standard from beginning to end that a lot of Cohen’s other albums do, it has some memorable moments, particularly “Darkness.”  

Cohen doesn’t have many years left with us, as he himself observed just this week in a farewell letter to his long-time muse Marianne Ilhen (do yourself a favour and read it here). I’m glad Cohen keeps extending his hand back to us through his art as he approaches the darkness.

Best tracks:  Going Home, Darkness, Come Healing, Different Sides

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