Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has a new album, "Old Ideas," that grapples with many of the same questions that have obsessed the 77-year-old songwriter for decades: death, God, love, desire, faith, betrayal and redemption. Since losing his songwriting fortune some years ago, Cohen has been out on the road to recoup, an experience that has "warmed...
Leonard Cohen generally takes his time. He sings, speaks, writes and records at his own measured pace. Concerts on his recent world tour have stretched to three hours. His new disc, “Old Ideas,” is his first studio album since “Dear Heather” in 2004.
But in an interview this month, when a journalist mentioned writing on deadline, he said: “You’ve got a deadline. Well, I do too: death.” He smiled. “It tends to insert itself into our considerations.”
Cohen, 77, was making promotional rounds for “Old Ideas” (Columbia), hosting a listening party at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. Slender and urbane in a gray suit and a fedora, with impeccable posture, he urged the guests to keep drinking as they listened, excused himself while the album played — “I’ve heard it,” he deadpanned — and returned to field a few questions.
Afterward, in a dressing room, Cohen said mortality was very much on his mind and in his songs.
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“I think it’s in all of them now,” he said. “I think it manifests itself as an unwillingness to screw around, and an unwillingness to be heavy-handed. You don’t want to do that, because I think there’s something about cheerfulness and dignity that are indicated.”
“Old Ideas” is an autumnal album, musing on memories and final reckonings, but it also has a gleam in its eye. It grapples once again with topics Cohen has pondered throughout his career: love, desire, faith, betrayal, redemption. Some of the diction is biblical; some is dryly sardonic.
“They’re old ideas in the sense that they’re old unresolved ideas, old moral questions,” he said backstage. “They’re ideas that have been rattling around in the mind of the culture for a long time.”
In many of the songs, true to ancient traditions of mystical poetry, the singer could be speaking to a lover or to God. The lyrics often build associations around a repeated phrase. In “Amen” — a slow shuffle with a banjo tickling at its fringes — Cohen sings, “Tell me again/When I’ve been to the river/And I’ve taken the edge off my thirst/Tell me again/We’re alone and I’m listening/I’m listening so hard that it hurts.”
He wrote and recorded part of “Old Ideas” with an unexpected partner: Patrick Leonard, best known as Madonna’s producer on albums including “Like a Prayer” and “Ray of Light.” He met Cohen while producing an album for his son, Adam Cohen; they got to talking about music, and Leonard spotted potential in a poem that would become “Going Home,” easing into further collaboration. “Going Home” starts the album with a hymn-like melody and a droll twist; it’s sung by an unnamed narrator — a manager? God? Satan? — using someone named Leonard as a mouthpiece: “He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.”
Unlike “Dear Heather,” an underproduced album full of dinky-sounding keyboard, “Old Ideas” features acoustic instruments: violin, slide guitar, trumpet, lightly brushed drums. The music is a slow-motion take on blues, hymns and waltzes, played with a hushed, almost surreptitious touch. For one song, “Anyhow” — which pleads, “I know you can’t forgive me/But forgive me anyhow” — a rhythm was tapped on a fedora.
Many of the songs are more spoken than sung, their melodies supplied by phantom female choirs. Cohen’s voice, always sepulchral, has dipped even deeper.
There’s a camaraderie in the music that Cohen credits to his recent years of touring, an unexpected consequence of what he had thought was financial ruin. In 1996 and 2001, preparing for retirement, Cohen sold his copyrights and songwriting royalties to Sony Music, netting about $10 million to place in investment trusts. But by 2004 he learned that those proceeds, controlled by his personal manager at the time, were nearly gone; a 2006 lawsuit awarded him $9 million that he was unable to collect. His solution was to return to the road; on his 75th birthday, in 2009, he was onstage in Barcelona.
Returning to the road transformed him.
“I was able to connect, for one thing, with living musicians,” he said. “I was working at home with just keyboards and my own guitar. Suddenly I was dealing with living musicians and then with living audiences and, yes, it did have a great effect. And I think it warmed some part of my heart that had taken on a chill.”
Cohen didn’t mention retirement. He said he had written, but not recorded, enough songs for another album. As some songs on “Old Ideas” clearly suggest, he has been listening extensively to the blues: music that grapples, tersely and eloquently, with “loss and death,” he said. Reflecting on his deadline, he summoned a Memphis Slim song: “When it all comes down,” he said. “You’ve got to go back to Mother Earth.”