Joyful album calls into question the old master's reputation for being the 'godfather of gloom', writes Barry Egan
IRVING Layton, the late Romanian-born Canadian poet, was on to something when he said of his close friend Leonard Cohen: "Leonard's mind has not been contaminated by a single idea."
Having said that, 77-year-old young pup Leonard, with the elegiac if gravelly baritone, has hardly ever been contaminated by a prolific working regime. He has released only 12 studio albums in his recording career which has spanned more than 40 years. His new album, Old Ideas, is his first studio album of new material in eight years.
It is self-deprecating and beautifully light in parts.
"I love to speak with Leonard/ He's a sportsman and a shepherd/ He's a lazy bastard/ Living in a suit," he sings on the opening track, Going Home.
He'd want to watch himself or he'll lose his reputation as the godfather of gloom.
In truth -- a concept about which he never tires of singing -- Cohen's music has nearly always been uplifting and joyful in its own way. The suicidal Kurt Cobain got it all wrong, of course, when in describing the saddest place he could think of on Nirvana's Penny Royal Tea, he sang of a "Leonard Cohen afterworld" where he could "sigh eternally". Cohen's best songs have a hymn-like truth to them.
And from whom better to get our truth than Cohen, a Jew who disappeared up a mountaintop to ponder Zen Buddhist koans, as Rolling Stone said. (His Zen-calm was possibly dashed in 2005 when Cohen filed a lawsuit alleging that his former manager Kelley Lynch had robbed him of millions of dollars. He won a $9.5m (€7.2m) court judgment against Ms Lynch.
The 10 new songs on Old Ideas, some critics have noted favourably, recall some of Cohen's earlier and most iconic sonic creations -- Suzanne and Bird on a Wire. "His measured, amelodic cadences may leave nonbelievers wondering why this guy creates such a fuss among fans and songwriting connoisseurs," writes Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune. "But the approach suits songs of moral complexity, a pile-up of poignant images and punch lines that conflate mortality, romance, tragedy and comedy."
The old master's words are a joy to listen to. You can see why everyone from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain adored him and why we still flock to his concerts. (He said recently that his two-year world tour "warmed some part of my heart that had taken on a chill". So let's hope he'll be back in Ireland soon. )
"He wants to write a love song/ An anthem of forgiving/ A manual for living with defeat/ A cry above the suffering/ A sacrifice recovering/ But that isn't what I need him to complete," sings Cohen in Going Home.
On Banjo, a song inspired by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Cohen sings about watching "a broken banjo bobbing on the dark, infested sea".
He continues: "Don't know how it got there/ Maybe taken by the wave/ Don't know how it got there/ Probably taken by the wave."
In Darkness, he sings:"I said, 'Is this contagious?'/ You said, 'Just drink it up.'"
There is plenty to drink up on Old Ideas. There is plenty of new ideas left in the sassy septuagenarian with the crooked smile.