Album review: Leonard Cohen, ‘Old Ideas’ (Columbia)

January 24, 2012

Few could dispute that 77-year-old Leonard Cohen is a musical treasure, the author of some of the most beautiful and poetic songs of the last four decades. And only the heartless would deny the Canadian artist the very late and long overdue career resurgence courtesy of the legion of admirers reinterpreting his greatest tunes, starting with the Pixies, Nick Cave, R.E.M., John Cale, and others on I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1991), reaching its pinnacle with Jeff Buckley’s celebrated rendition of “Hallelujah,” and arguably hitting overkill with not one but two versions of that tune on the soundtrack to Shrek.

Yet Cohen’s catalog of 11 earlier studio albums often has been plagued by fussy overproduction that not only fails to match his gruff, homely, but endearing baritone, but often detracts from it. And while the new, ironically titled Old Ideas largely downplays the super-obnoxious obsession with synthesizers on many of his latter-day releases, it shares the overly mannered, obsequiously polite, yuppie cabaret vibe of his 2009 tour (read my reviews of his show at the Chicago Theatre here) and concurrent concert disc Live In London. Producer Ed Sanders long has disavowed the caterwauling hootenanny vibe of the first four albums by his legendary band of proto-punk Beatnik perverts the Fugs. But geez, one wishes that a little bit of that wonderful, orgiastic chaos had seeped in here.

Still, half the pleasure of listening to the Buddhist bard is reveling in his distinctive mixture of moments of Zen enlightenment and risqué one-liners. And if none of the 10 tunes quite match the genius of the very best Cohen tunes—“Amen” in particular is a far cry from “Hallelujah”—those classic Cohen couplets are in ample evidence as he contemplates mortality (“I’ve got no future/I know my days are few/I thought the past would last me/But the darkness got that too”), playfully mocks his now long-faded, well-mannered bad-boy persona (“I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard/Living in a suit”), and appeals for us to love him despite (or maybe because of) all his flaws and undiminished appetites (“Dreamed about you baby/You were wearing half your dress/I know you have to hate me/But could you hate me less?”).

Maybe the inevitable covers of these songs to come will reveal buried musical charms as rich as the lyrical gems. At the moment, however, they combine for a welcome but somewhat lackluster encore.

Rating on the four-star scale: 2.5 stars.

Old Ideas is streaming now at NPR Music.