For his longtime fans, “Old Ideas” offers all the rhyme, rhythm and baritone that make Leonard Cohen a legend. For those unfamiliar with his work, however, this folk-rock genre may not for everyone. It’s deeply poetic lyrics and minimal accompaniment make it far from a showpiece and more of a subtle work of art to be listened to attentively. Through these resonating lyrics, the music drifts from themes of passion, spirituality and loneliness.
For many singers, voice is only part of a song. Music makes up the rest and often serves as the base for embellishment. Here, however, Cohen’s is able to almost surpass dependence on music. In fact, his deep, earthy and almost crackling voice is the most profound factor in his success. Like previous albums, “Old Ideas” explores just that. Cohen’s rich voice accompanied by light, charismatic melodies evokes a variety of conflicted emotions and desires.
With so much weight on Cohen’s voice, there’s no surprise that as a poet, the lyrics are solid in their somber, conflicted and searching phrases. The first track, “Going Home,” introduces Cohen, himself, in third person with, “he will speak these words of wisdom, though he knows he’s really nothing but the brief elaboration of a tune.” This sentimental tune is accompanied by violins, soft rattlers and a piano. His use of repetition really brings out themes of loneliness, especially in the second track, “Amen,” in which he calls out “tell me again…tell me over and over, tell me that you want me then,” paired with longing bursts of horns. Though this song continues for seven minutes, it does not feel overdone, since Cohen, though repetitive, is not redundant.
“Old Ideas” tackles some extremely deep themes about morality and spirituality. Religious references appear in several tracks including “Show Me The Place” and “Come Healing,” where christian icons such as “the word became a man” and a “cross left behind” are prevalent images. Though there are elements of religion, the album seems to focus more on individual struggle and acceptance rather than preaching beliefs. In this way, the tracks are relateable to a wide range of people.
Though Cohen largely embraces slow, subtle rhythms, there are a several tracks including “Darkness,” “Banjo” and “Different Sides” that incorporate a guitar, drums and keyboard. These collaborate to make more of a rock and roll tune. Furthermore, though Cohen’s lyrics are largely dramatic, the music and melodies that accompany him are often charming. Even the lyrics of “Banjo” with horns and percussion hold a semisweet tone with, “there’s something that I’m watching…it’s a broken banjo bobbing on the dark infested sea.”
Overall, “Old Ideas” captures the core of what has made Cohen so successful in the past. He is able to weave through deep themes while still incorporating light accompaniment. A harmonica, like that in “Lullaby,” is just the comforting sound necessary for such a track title. This album again elegantly pairs poetry to music and effectively resurrects the classic struggles that make us human.