Sometimes you just know that a new album is going to be good. There’s just no way that it’s going to disappoint you. That’s how I felt about the new Leonard Cohen album. And then I listened to it. And I was right.
Cohen may be 77 years old, and Old Ideas may be his first album in eight years, but everything always just felt right for it to be a really good collection of songs. Anyone who was lucky enough to see him on his tours of the last few years knew what to expect, and it delivers all of that and more.
His voice was never his strongest asset in the early days, after all, he never intended to be a singer, just a poet. But age has done incredible things to it, adding huge fissures of pain and emotion to every word, every breath that you hear. When this change first happened, he drowned it in synthesisers and production, but Old Ideas strips all of that back to put his voice and his words front and centre.
The understated production by Ed Sanders is one of the key reasons why the album works so well. I have to admit to being a huge fan of the synth-heavy Cohen records, and there’s so many great songs that came out of that period, but basing the sound closer to his live performances has worked really well, and the extended jazzy sections of Amen sound wonderful.
Also toned down is the use of female backing vocalists, which threatened to make Cohen sound like a guest on his own album on Dear Heather. Longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson (in a much reduced role generally here) and The Webb Sisters are still evident (gloriously so on Come Healing), but this is Leonard’s show and is all the better for it.
Lyrically, he’s on fine form, and, as his press conference to launch the album showed, his sense of black humour is very much intact. All of the familiar themes of damnation, redemption, love, sex and loss are represented, usually in each song, and there’s plenty of memorable moments. Darkness had been made available to listen to a few weeks ago and still stands out as one of the highlights, catchy, gloomy and just great.
Listening to Old Ideas, you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s an album made by someone approaching their 80s, and not many artists manage to produce something quite this good at that age. He’s six years older now than Johnny Cash was when he died, and it was remarkable enough the quality of his latter-day releases. These may be Old Ideas from an old man, but they’re as fresh and relevant to the world as anything anyone younger could come up with. And that’s a miracle worth waiting for.