Music Appreciation: Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen performs in this undated promotional photo.

by Echo Xie

Earlier this year, the 77-year-old Canadian singer/songwriter legend Leonard Cohen released his 12th studio album, Old Ideas. It is also his first new recording in seven years, since Dear Heather in 2004.

I’m aware that such anticipation often leads to either disappointment or blind appreciation. But now that I have given this album almost two months and more than 50 listens,  there’s still no sign of my excitement abating. In an age when music comes so easily that people are no longer stuck with the same LP, counting the days for the next great release, that’s a solid reason to spread the word.

It’s not easy to find new passion in something you’ve been doing for nearly half a century, even if that thing is as cool as music. For that reason, most survivors of the ’60s rock and roll scene had either stepped away or gone through radical changes. David Bowie had tried out nearly every music genre he possible could and finally decided to retire and enjoy his life as a happy family man; Bob Dylan is still keeping his promise for a “never-ending tour,” but he is also good at surprising his audience with a crazy new rendition of every old song; Robert Plant, the iconic vocalist of Led Zeppelin immersed himself into bluegrass; while Lou Reed turned his guitar into a heavy metal machine and teamed up with Metallica.

Unlike his peers, Cohen somehow managed to keep his music undisturbed. The ambiance he established in his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1968 still lingers, the theme still prevails, and the way he organizes his music has became so familiar and recognizable. But this kind of persistence does not imply that he hasn’t improved. Changes are just more subtle, often reflect on the subtext between his lyrics and the depth of his voice.

And Cohen, who knows his journey better than anyone, gave this new album an ironic name: Old Ideas.

From song titles like “Amen,” “Darkness,” “Come Healing,” and “Crazy To Love You,” it’s easy to conclude that Cohen is indeed still hovering around “old ideas” like religion and salvation, life and death, love and desire, hope and despair, etc. But when you really start to listen, you’ll soon notice the wisdom, humor and self-awareness that one can only gain through the lapse of time; not to mention his aged voice has became more real and convincing than ever.

As usual, Cohen never hesitates to share his confusion, confrontation, and endless inquiry about religion and humanity. He sings with such honesty and righteousness, his words are so direct and beautifully crafted that they stab your heart and rub your mind at the same time. As Cohen himself sings in the song “Amen:”  “I’m listening so hard that it hurts.”

The opening song “Going Home” is a conversation between Cohen and God, where Cohen describes himself as a “lazy bastard living in a suit” who wants to write a “manual for living with defeat,” and delivers God’s words because “he doesn’t have the freedom to refuse.” In the song “Crazy to Love You,” he is struggling between his desire and fear for love. “I had to go crazy to love you, you who are never the one whom I chased through the souvenir heartache,” he whispers, “but crazy has places to hide in that are deeper than any goodbye.” Then with the song “Come Healing” Cohen sings a prayer to all the brokenness, “Come healing of the spirit, come healing of the limb.” There are also light moments when the music gets a little bit funky (“Banjo”) or when the lyric pitches a lover’s quarrel, “both of us say there are laws to obey, yeah but frankly I don’t like your tune” (“Different Sides”).

Confucius once said, “At fifty I knew the will of heaven; at sixty my ears were obedient for truth, at seventy I could follow the wishes of my heart without doing wrong.” At this age, Cohen has had enough laughter and tears, crossed enough rivers and seen through enough horrors to learn a simple truth: life isn’t about winning. When facing the harsh side of life, tenderness can sometimes be even more effective than a razor’s edge.

Cohen admitted in a recent interview that although to others everything he does seems seamless, to him writing a song is never a careless act: “I always felt I was kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to get the song together. I never had the sense that I was standing in front of a buffet table with a multitude of choices. I felt I was operating in more like what Yeats used to say was the ‘foul rag and bone shop of the heart’.”

That’s why people don’t really care that he sometimes go off-key, or his finger-picking guitar is not perfect, or the instruments and background chorus can be a little out of place. After all these years, when songwriting can be as easy as a game for him, Cohen is still scraping words from the bottom of his heart.

And that’s all that counts.

(The photo of Leonard Cohen is from his website, courtesy Sony Music; the photo is used for promotional purposes under fair use and fair comment guidelines.)

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