9:32 am Feb. 1, 20122
One of the best lines about songwriting comes from a 1992 interview of Leonard Cohen by Paul Zollo: "If I knew where the good songs came from I'd go there more often." (He must have liked it too: the line appears twice in the same interview.)
It is both a Zen acceptance of the "mysterious condition" of songwriting, as Cohen calls it, and a wry refutation of the notion that the best songs emanate from some ineffable, higher power. These kinds of comments tend to sound like false modesty from most songwriters ("Thank the cosmos for that song you like! I am but a humble vessel"), but I think Cohen's saying something else: While the process contains mystery, writing good songs is above all grueling work, and waiting around for divine lightning is pointless.
Now we have a new batch of songs on Old Ideas, out this week. Whatever their provenance, mystical or mundane, what constitutes a good song for Leonard Cohen, at age 77, with his history? There's no explicit sense in the songs themselves of why this is a collection of "old ideas" (though the phrase itself is an old idea: it was the working title for the album before it), other than containing "ideas" from someone who is "old." But while very much in line with the Leonard Cohen Sound we've come to expect in the 21st century, these songs contain some interesting echoes of a far more musical Cohen, one we haven't heard in a while.
Cohen admirers, whether because of his innate and tremendous gifts or because of his famous roots as a published poet and novelist, tend to focus hard on the lyrics. And there's no question his best songs succeed triumphantly in that department. But running down his career, one wonders at what point—and why—Cohen abandoned the other half of his craft: Melody. The arc is intriguing: He leaves behind pure literature; plunges headlong into song, lit credentials and talent in tow but with a palpable fervor for music itself; then seems to return to poetry, to spoken word, with the musical component as a necessary concession to the marketplace.
And the title of this album seems to warrant a close look at Cohen's career arc. With the focus on the text, it gets forgotten that he was once a master melodicist. His first album contains a number of songs—obvious contenders like "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy," and "So Long Marianne," but also "Stranger Song" and "Winter Lady"—that would hold up fairly well even with lousy or pedestrian lyrics. Then there's a song like "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye," which has some nice lines but would be nowhere without that tune. For a seeming dilettante in 1967 (when he had already achieved enough fame as a poet to warrant a documentary film), these were impressive showings.
Cohen's gift for melodic invention remained strong throughout the '70s, particularly on albums like New Skin For the Old Ceremony and Recent Songs, from 1974 and 1979 respectively. But as the '80s began, a change came over Cohen's voice, what he himself has called "the deepening." That's one way of putting it: While it's true his register lowered, the change also resulted in an abrupt and dramatic narrowing of his vocal range. Perhaps coincidentally, this timbral shift parallelled an increased reliance on synthetic keyboards over acoustic guitar for composition and accompaniment. Mostly gone was his distinctive fingerpicking on the classical guitar, to make way for an invasion of canned beats and fake strings.
These changes draw a fairly stark line between the two eras of his career, pre- and post-deepening. In the latter half, Cohen has given greater (by his admission, laborious) attention to the lyrics, at some cost to the musical end of things. Singer-songwriters need to be able to sing what they write, after all, and the keyboard loops engendered repetitive song structures upon which to pile verse after verse (after verse; Cohen's song structures in this period tend toward AAAAAAABAAAAAAAAB, etc.). There are a great many good songs on Various Positions, I'm Your Man, and The Future, and an abundance of brilliant lyrics, but little of the more delicate beauty found in his first decade of recordings. The arrangements on these albums lack in subtlety and depth—a superficiality nearly charming on the electro-poppy I'm Your Man but oppressive on The Future, Cohen's sole '90s release.
It comes as some relief, then, that on the last three Leonard Cohen albums (Ten New Songs, Dear Heather, and now, Old Ideas) he and his collaborators have settled on a mellower musical direction. Since Ten New Songs in 2001, the Cohen Sound has been a kind of synthy lounge pop, smooth and smoky concoctions bubbling under the muttering master's voice. Of these three, Old Ideas works best, which suggests it has been a decade-long process of perfecting "Late-Period Leonard." There are fewer moments of gauche synth or terrible sax on Ideas, and a more mature set of sonic textures. Finally, of all his albums since the "deepening," here we have the finest application of Cohen's voice in its cask-aged condition. With a range reduced to nearly nothing (and we should all be happy to sound this good doing anything at 77 years old), he has learned ways to suggest melody that bring a musicality to Old Ideas that has been lacking in his work for too long.
The first line of the album offers up a classic Cohen tic: "I love to speak with Leonard." Leonard Cohen loves mentioning Leonard Cohen in his songs, and while the first time it appeared in "Famous Blue Raincoat" ("Sincerely, L. Cohen.") it might have seemed like a precious bit of '70s confessionalism, since at least "Field Commander Cohen" (from New Skin) Cohen's appearances in Cohen's songs have been winking and wry. This opening song is called "Going Home," and is one of four songs where the music is written (entirely, unless Cohen is being overly modest in the liner notes) by Robert Leonard. On all four, Leonard (Robert, that is) hews close to the late-period model, providing slow-burners with simple, traditional chord sequences. On these songs in particular, the melodies are spartan to the point of near-speech, with the backing singers and other instruments providing what melodic interest there is. Still, Leonard (not Cohen) gives "Show Me The Place" a low-key gospel treatment that provides some of the nicer instrumental passages on the album.
More interesting is another co-write, "Crazy To Love You," with music by Anjani Thomas, who also contributed to Dear Heather. The song features a rare return to the fingerpicking style of Cohen's '60s and '70s output. Even the chords and production (no synth or sax or canned beats, just voice and guitar) echo that period, while the singing finds Cohen reaching more than usual, to lovely effect.
Writing music on his own, Cohen's success rate varies. "Darkness" begins promisingly, with that fast, Spanish-style fingerpicking redolent of past glories like "Avalanche" and "Stranger Song," but then the band kicks in and it turns into a bland blues. "Banjo," another blues, seems like a ridiculous waste of time until a strikingly nice horn section enters briefly mid-song.
In the credit column of solo Cohen compositions, "Amen" has the darkened, bleak feel of much of his '80s and '90s work, but with far better taste brought to the arrangement. The string section is lovely and doomy, the cornet is moody and subtle, and the drums are real, honest-to-god drums.
The album ends strong with another Cohen-only affair, "Different Sides." This one pulls together a lot of what's best about the man's music, from all eras. The melody is jaunty and dark, the words sly and slightly silly (in a good way). It also has the album's funniest line: "Come on, baby, give me a kiss/ Stop writing everything down." Meanwhile, Dana Glover's vocal assistance on the choruses are harshly weird, which points toward a new approach to satisfying Cohen's eternal need for women backup singers.
For a good number of years it saddened many that either Cohen's musical taste—or his interest in music—had abandoned him, or that he'd handed over the reins to lesser talents permanently. There was never any doubt he would only deepen and progress as a lyricist, but after a point it became harder and harder to engage with his music as music. Old Ideas, while still the work of an artist who, in the end, favors text over sound, has energized my engagement. There are good songs here, and wherever they're from, one hopes he'll go there again, and often.
More by this author:
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