Style: Literate pop and folk; compare to Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon
Top tracks: "Amen," "Show Me the Place," "Banjo"
Leonard Cohen is 77 years old. A critically acclaimed and award-winning novelist and poet long before he considered a musical career, Cohen merely transferred his poetic gifts to the guitar. His songs have now been covered more than 2,000 times on record. Not surprisingly, he's a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the few singer/songwriters of the '60s still regarded as being at the top of his game. Long recognized for his spiritually searching lyrics, his albums have always attracted attentive Christian listeners, especially in the past ten years. His song "Hallelujah," resurrected most famously by Jeff Buckley, has been covered by almost every earnest worship band at a seeker-friendly church.
But none of that should obscure the central fact of his current existence. Leonard Cohen is 77 years old, and nothing else really matters to him.
Old Ideas, his first album of new material in almost eight years, is suffused with the knowledge of mortality, with the dread of impending death. Those who have followed Cohen's career know that these are hardly new concerns. But never before have they been so explicitly and so insistently examined and prodded. Raised as a Jew, now a Buddhist monk, Cohen asks the big questions that will resonate with Christians. They transcend creeds and dogmas because they are universal and human.
Aided and abetted by a quintet of backup singers who sometimes prop him up melodically, and sometimes serve as an ironic Greek chorus, commenting on the dour proceedings, Cohen delivers ten songs of poetic loss and cautious promise. "Amen," a pleading prayer for mercy disguised as a Tom Waits trashcan symphony, yearns for the day when "the victims are singing and the laws of remorse are restored." The lovely, gospel-tinged "Show Me the Place" longs to see the place "where the Word became a man." But every song circles back, inevitably, to the specter of approaching demise.
"It's coming for me, darling, no matter where I go," Cohen sings on the haunted country shuffle "Banjo." "Its duty is to harm me; my duty is to know."
"As I grew older," Cohen explained about the creation of Old Ideas, "I understood that instructions came with this voice, my voice. And the instructions were these: never to lament casually. And if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty."
Mission accomplished. To be fair, some listeners will struggle with the parched ruin that now passes for Cohen's singing voice. No matter. Like Johnny Cash's American Recordings, sometimes the ravaged, world-weary voice is the best possible voice to communicate deep and abiding questions and truths. Old Ideas is an album that sums up Cohen's considerable strengths. God willing, it won't be his last. But if it is, Cohen has graced us with a masterful final word; a rueful, profound, and poetic meditation on love, impending loss, and the transcendent hope that bestrides the gap.
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