Old Ideas arrives at a crucial juncture in the Leonard Cohen saga. While Laughin’ Len has been a legend for decades– especially among those who like their lyrics with a generous sprinkling of black-humored poetry– he has more recently achieved the kind of iconic status that’s generally reserved for the dead (not The Dead) and maybe Bob Dylan. In addition to the attention garnered by the 2005 tribute film I’m Your Man, where everyone from Bono to Rufus Wainwright swore their undying love for the Canadian songwriter, over the last few years Cohen has been touring extensively after a long absence, with a surprisingly busy tour schedule for an artist of his particular vintage (he’s now 77), which helped put Leonard on a first-name basis with new generations of fans all over the globe.
Old Ideas is Cohen’s 12th studio album, and his first since all of the aforementioned activity, so there are undoubtedly more people paying attention than ever before. Though Cohen would seem destined for a slam dunk with this kind of setup, things get tricky if you recall that his last outing, Dear Heather, was the biggest — some might even say only — disappointment in the artist’s entire career, a weirdly disconnected-sounding kind of recording that came off like some sort of contractual-obligation job. Thankfully, perhaps partly on account of the way he’s reconnected with his audience, Cohen has found his feet and returned with an album that plays to his strengths.
The production on Old Ideas is stripped down to the bone, giving both Cohen’s legendary lyrical prowess and his five-metric-tons-of-cigarettes voice plenty of room to work their magic. The lyrical themes themselves are classic Cohen, blending religion, sex, and self-effacement into a suave, subtle, poetic swirl that’s honed to a razor’s edge. The almost hymnal “Going Home” kicks off the album on a high note (figuratively, that is) with Cohen’s basso profondo voicing the role of The Almighty himself, looking in on Leonard with both compassion and complaint. “Show Me the Place” has a similarly slow-rolling, pseudo-reverential feel that’s quickly and craftily undermined, in this case seemingly by Cohen’s ever-overactive libido. “The Darkness” is a sinuous, bluesy tune full of the kind of whistling-through-the graveyard wit that’s long been Lenny’s trademark.
To be frank, the 10-track album is heavily front-loaded — while the texture and tone remain relatively consistent, the writing “relaxes” a bit about halfway through, and there’s little in the record’s second half that’s as intensely arresting as any of the aforementioned songs. But while that may prevent Old Ideas from being a great Leonard Cohen album — the biggest milestones in the man’s mind-blowing discography are a lot to live up to — it doesn’t keep it from being a great album in and of itself.