How do you review a Leonard Cohen album? Singularly idiosyncratic, Cohen has spent 40-plus years writing about love, death and hate while taking as many musical left-turns as possible. Cohen spends most of Old Ideas, his first studio album since 2004's Dear Heather, singing in a quiet rasp over musical backdrops that extend from piano waltzes to lounge-like jazz. And reviewing his music has gotten no easier.
Fans have often been drawn to Cohen's lyrics as much as the songs themselves. For over 40 years he has married the light and the dark, injecting even the most depressing topics with wit and humor.
Old Ideas is no different. Poking fun at his eight-year absence, he calls himself a "lazy bastard living in a suit" in album opener "Going Home." Good thing too, because, while containing no murderous hunchbacks (as on Songs of Love and Hate's "Avalanche"), there is still a certain amount of gazing into the void on Old Ideas. "It's coming for me, darling, no matter where I go" he sings on "Banjo," and other songs follow a similar vein.
As on the oft-covered "Hallelujah," "Show Me the Place" mixes sex and religion, operating at a place that unites both.
How you will react to the music depends on whether or not you are already a fan of Cohen. Crawling along with the speed of a road-crossing sloth, these compositions don't contain much melodically to distract from Cohen's murmurs. To non-fans, Cohen's old-man rasp might appear entirely off-putting, merely a vessel to present his often brilliant lyrics. But listen closely, and you might be surprised: Tiny flourishes, like the gypsy-jazz violin in "Amen," add depth to the record and diversify the sound. Female backup singers cover melodies that, in his 70s, Cohen couldn't hope to sing anymore.
Perhaps the defining quality of this record is the age of the man who made it. Cohen simply sounds old throughout, weary and sad, though with dignity and humor. He truly is in a league all his own. This makes assigning a rating impossible. These days, his albums can only be compared to themselves.
While perhaps no Songs of Love and Hate, Old Ideas certainly is more coherent than his last few albums, with their emphasis on poetry over music. I guess I'll end with a reviewer's trick I always assumed was a cop-out: if you're a Cohen fan, add a star; if you aren't, subtract one. But with Cohen, there's no other way. He's simply unreviewable.