Old Ideas/ Leonard Cohen
Sony Music/ Import Rs 599
AS a music journalist, one of my biggest regrets is that I couldn’t meet and interview Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, even after tracking him down on his 2001 visit to Mumbai, and speaking to him over the telephone.
On a tip-off, I had found that Cohen was in Mumbai to meet his spiritual guru Ramesh Balsekar, and was staying at the Shalimar hotel in Kemps Corner. On first attempt, I was lucky to be connected to his room. The famous voice answered. Goose flesh! However, he apologised and said he was on a personal visit and wasn’t keen on giving any interviews. When I persisted by saying I just wanted to collect his autograph, he said he was leaving in 15 minutes, and to try the next day. I could never connect with him after that. Sweat, disappointment!
Though I’ve personally followed the other great singer-songwriter Bob Dylan a bit more deeply, I’ve had my share of Cohen phases over the years. It began in 1987 or so, when I heard a compilation containing the songs ‘Suzanne’, ‘Sisters Of Mercy’, ‘So Long Marianne’, ‘Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ and ‘Bird On A Wire’. In fact, I had always associated ‘Suzanne’ with Neil Diamond, and was somewhat surprised to discover it was written by the then-new-to-me Cohen.
Somewhere down the line, I got the tape of ‘Death Of A Ladies’ Man’, which has the songs ‘Iodine’, ‘Paper-thin Hotel’ and my all-time Cohen favourite ‘I Left A Woman Waiting’. Later, I randomly got exposed to classics like ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’, ‘Our Lady Of Solitude’, ‘Tower Of Song’, ‘Waiting For The Miracle’ (used in the ‘Wonder Boys’ soundtrack) and ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’, and it was only over the last six or seven years that I decided to explore his earlier albums more closely.
Cohen’s latest album ‘Old Ideas’ comes seven years after his previous ‘Dear Heather’. The first thing that strikes you is how his voice is now sounding even deeper. As a reviewer in Amazon wrote, his voice has now passed its way from the whisky and cigarettes stage, and is now on its way to a chronic bronchitis sound. That may seem like a negative remark for some, but the fact is that at 77, Cohen is actually in prime vocal form. He has always had a distinct timbre, but that ‘boom’ is sounding more intoxicating and heavenly now.
‘Old Ideas’ contains 10 new songs, of which three fall in the uptempo category — the other being laidback and moving. While Cohen is involved in the penning of each song, he’s joined by a group of co-writers including longtime Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard and close associate Anjani Thomas, who’s worked with him on three previous albums.
The mood is set with the haunting ‘Going Home’, which has an opening tune reminiscent of ‘I Left A Woman Waiting’. Accompanied by some melodious violins and charming female choruses (a regular feature on this album), Cohen’s voice thunders as he sings: “He will speak these words of wisdom, like a sage, a man of vision, though he knows he’s really nothing but the brief elaboration of a tube”. The way he uses open spaces between words is extraordinary.
At seven minutes and a half, ‘Amen’ is the only long song here, and the sudden burst of trumpet gives it an exotic, jazzy feel. More violins and female back-up follow in ‘Show Me The Place’, but it’s the blues-based and brisk ‘Darkness’ which offers sudden variety. While the United Heart Touring Band chips in with neat arrangements on this song, lines like “I used to love the rainbow, I used to love the view, I loved the early morning, I’d pretend that it was new, But I caught the darkness baby, and I got it worse than you” reflect Cohen’s songwriting brilliance.
Other lyrical gems come from ‘Anyhow’, which requests another chance for reunion from a separated one (“I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less?”) and the Anjani Thomas co-written ‘Crazy To Love You” (“I’m old and the mirrors don’t lie”). A wonderful chorus line dominates the spiritually uplifting and sing-along marvel ‘Come Healing’, whereas ‘Banjo’ is a country-flavoured song with a pleasant acoustic guitar and smooth cornet.
The album concludes with the bedroom-voiced ‘Lullaby’, whereas the quicker ‘Different Sides’ makes smart use of the Hammond B3 organ, and has Cohen singing: “Both of us say there are laws to be obey, but frankly I don’t like your tone, You want to change the way I make love, I want to leave it alone”.
The best thing about ‘Old Ideas’ is the simplicity of the tunes, the quality of the words and its overall replayability. Morning, afternoon or night, the songs haunt you. Though my other favourite albums have been ‘Songs Of Leonard Cohen’, ‘Death Of A Ladies’ Man’ and ‘Recent Songs’, his latest effort would rate among his best, and arguably his most stylishly produced.
In terms of numbers, Cohen hasn’t really been as prolific as some of his contemporaries — 12 studio albums in 45 years, in comparison to Dylan’s 34 in a 50-year career. But over time, Cohen has made an impact as one of the most powerful songwriters, using themes as diverse as love, sex, religion, politics, war and depression, accompanied by innovative metaphors and remarkable imagery. This venture, which focusses on the themes of love, desire, hope, suffering and regret, just proves that ‘Old Ideas’ can be great ideas too.
RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic