Reflections On Leonard Cohen’s ‘Old Ideas’
OK, record received and a couple of weeks taken for the music to circulate and opinions to form. You’ll have seen reviews elsewhere, I’m sure, so you don’t really need the overall judgment that follows: this is good stuff and well worthy of your attention – so buy it. Provided, of course, you like Leonard Cohen. There can’t be many neutrals left when it comes to this most Marmite-ish of artists: devotee or detractor, choose your side.
I am decidedly with the first group. Leonard was one of the first singer-songwriters I really got and dug into, back in the heady days when I was first exploring music. Which inevitably means that a lot of the others seemed – and seem – pale and shallow in comparison. A friend’s older brother had his first three records which we borrowed and taped and traded, and were hooked. Another friend’s father was persuaded to drive us the hour or so to Leonard’s concert at Manchester’s Belle Vue in 1972 – the first big sit-down gig I’d been to – on the tour that spawned Live Songs and Tony Palmer’s Bird On The Wire film. Even with no real comparators for calibration, I knew that this was good, and special.
I’d also acquired a battered, secondhand copy of a songbook covering the first two albums and was diligently working my clumsy-fingered way through it as I battled to learn to play the guitar. (A historical note, children: back in the dark ages before the web, songbooks were often the only route to working out how to play a song for those with undeveloped ears. And much printed music was arranged for the piano and featured unlikely and/or just-plain-wrong chord diagrams. This one was a splendid guitar-oriented exception, so I gave it special attention.)
Why am I telling you all this? Because the hours with the songbook not only helped immerse me in LC’s lyrics – which usually and unsurprisingly get the most attention from the critics – but also helped me appreciate his often underrated musicality. There are some great tunes and nice harmonic touches lurking in there. And my early exposure to The Army and to the man’s sardonic stage patter gave the lie to the (still-circulating) caricature of a funereal, solitary depressive hunched over his nylon-strung acoustic.
All of which meant that I relished the rockier arrangements on record heralded by New Skin For The Old Ceremony, loved a second live exposure at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1985 and was knocked out by the bounce and verve of I’m Your Man three years later. And meant I was correspondingly somewhat underwhelmed by the lower-key, half-spoken, female-backing-singer-heavy, synthesiser-based approach which informed much of Ten New Songs and Dear Heather. (I can’t remember the last time I played the latter and I’ve just had to look at the sleeve to remind myself what’s on it – not much really leaps out to me.)
I was then upbeat, excited and flat-out astonished by two exposures to the phenomenal 2008-9 World Tour, at the O2 and here in Brighton. Amazing energy, Leonard in great voice and lovely arrangements from a brilliant band. And what a great atmosphere the concerts were played in: amazing warmth flowing both ways between audience and stage. This wasn’t rose-tinted retrospection, the last chance to remember when he used to be good and patronise a plucky septuagenarian before he finally shuffles off. No, this was as good as it ever was – we knew it and he knew it, and the CDs and DVDs prove it.
So, no pressure, Len, for this, the twelfth studio album, released in your seventy-eighth year.
I’ll get my carping out of the way first: it could have been even better if he’d used his well-honed tour band for more than one song – there are still quite a lot of similar sounding, similar paced numbers featuring a bit more girly oohing than is good for them. But there is definitely more light and shade here, nice use of additional instrumentation, and three songs on which LC plays guitar (and which sound as if they were written on guitar). Furthermore, the one tour band song, ‘Darkness’ is something to treasure.
As are the words: OK, we’re not going to get the ornate lyrical flourishes of the first couple of albums again – just as Bruce Springsteen won’t revisit The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, or Bob Dylan Blonde On Blonde – but this is late-period Leonard at his pithy, quotable, double and triple-edged best.
Let’s take it song by song:
- Going Home is a great opener – elegiac and very funny. Straight into the territory of Leonard’s ambiguous dialogues – who’s talking and who is he talking to? Just as so many of his songs seem simultaneously to be about his relationships with lovers and with God, his recurrent biblical imagery helping that ambivalence, we’re not entirely clear. Going home could be death and/or some nearer, earthly rest. It could be his muse speaking, letting go, or maybe his soul – the part that ‘wore the costume’ of a ‘lazy bastard living in a suit’. And a nice touch that LC and collaborator Patrick Leonard co-write a song that opens with ‘I love to talk to Leonard…’
- For Amen the voice drops even lower. It’s an angry but resigned deferral of some call he doesn’t want to hear. ‘Tell me again when I’m clean and sober’ but also ‘When the angels are panting and scratching the door to come in’. There’s an effective twangy banjo-like part in the mix – no banjo credited, so probably a guitar.
- Show Me The Place slows things down again: piano-led, mournful, with a lovely, sad fiddle solo. Another prayer to his muse or his god. With a striking middle 8
The troubles came
I saved what I could save
A thread of light
and I hear echoes in that ‘light’ of the glorious ‘crack in everything’ from The Future’s ‘Anthem’.
- Darkness brings out the touring band: organ and brass, slinky with a sense of menace, a blues in structure. There’s the familiar sex/metaphysics duality in the lyric, but intimations of mortality seem the dominant theme for me. So I was a little taken aback to read in this month’s Mojo that “Darkness appears to be about cunnilingus”. Yes, you can interpret lines like ‘I caught the darkness / Drinking from your cup’ in that way… But it’s a bit like being told King Lear is a play about eyeballs.
- Anyhow is close to a recitation, until a late night, jazz club backing slides in – all smoky backing vocals, tinkling ivories, brushed drums. Lyrically, this plea for a wronged lover to take the singer back (‘Even though you have to hate me / Could you hate me less?’) may be slight, but it’s an effective overall performance.
- Crazy To Love You is a guitar-based song, with a nice change of feel and some well-wrought lines
I’m old and the mirrors don’t lie
But crazy has places to hide in
Deeper than any goodbye.
- Come Healing is the first real sign of Leonard-by-numbers on the album: plodding beat; girly chorus overload, with Len not coming in till the second verse; no surprises in words or music. You can imagine it perfectly well once you have the title and the mood. Pleasant enough, though.
- Banjo brings us back on track: another blues, with Leonard’s trademark humour and menace; a nice arrangement of guitar, piano and cornet; all centred on the daft but effective image of ‘a broken banjo bobbing in the dark infested sea’. (That’s how the lyric sheet has it, without punctuation. If anyone would like a discussion of the relative merits of ‘dark, infested’ and ‘dark-infested’, please say.)
- Lullaby dices with the bland and predictable (‘If the night is long / Here is my lullaby’) but is redeemed by some bizarre imagery about a mouse and a cat who ‘…have fallen in love / They’re talking in tongues’. Plus more LC guitar and a refreshing dash of what sounds like a mouth harp but could be a synth…
- Different Sides is a strong closer with a jaunty, organ-embellished backdrop to some sassy repartee with the ubiquitous lover/god/muse: ‘Both of us say there are laws to obey / But frankly I don’t like your tone’. It feels to me like a playfight with his art, and a pretty good place to be at this stage of the game.
You want to live where the suffering is
I want to get out of town.
C’mon baby give me a kiss
Stop writing everything down.
I will stop in a minute, honestly. But having mentioned Mojo‘s LC interview, I’d also like to commend the CD glued to its front cover: The Songs Of Leonard Cohen Covered.
This, as the name suggests, comprises all ten songs from Songs Of..., plus five bonus tracks from the next two albums, covered by a wide range of folk, quite a few of which I hadn’t heard before. Most were specially recorded, plus a nice Will Oldham version of ‘Winter Lady’ from the 90s.
Now, you may be familiar with other such compilations and you may have doubts. I agree that hearing Leonard’s words from other mouths rather reminds you of what you are missing: much better vocalists than him, several hundred storeys up in the Tower of Song, can sound two-dimensional in comparison; and nobody so completely inhabits a Cohen lyric like its creator – a poltergeist lurking in the fabric of the building. The coverers tend to take things too slow and too seriously. On the other hand, some people are able to make you really listen with a new and engaging phrasing, or an unexpected arrangement.
For me, the best Cohen cover ever is still REM‘s storming take on ‘First We Take Manhattan’, and there’s nothing quite in that league here. But honorable mentions in particular for Liz Green‘s intelligent rethinking of ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ to a piano accompaniment; Bill Callahan‘s questing stab at ‘So Long Marianne’; and Diagrams’ transformed – and lovely – ‘Famous Blue Raincoat.’ And I was particularly taken by the Miserable Rich‘s version of ‘The Stranger Song’, after thinking I was going to hate it when it started. It is pitched so much higher than the original that the vocal sometimes verges on falsetto. Its dense and intricate string arrangement has real emotional heft. The singer is clearly thinking about the words and finding new meanings. I find they come from Brighton: definitely a band to look out for.
So, well worth a listen. Think of it as a CD for £4.50 with a free magazine and you’ll even persuade yourself you’re getting a bargain.
The Mojo article talks of Leonard working on the next album and contemplating going back on the road. I hope there is a lot more to come from this quite extraordinary career.
(from Eden On The Line)