Leonard Cohen's Self-Deprecating Brilliance

Leonard Cohen -- Old Ideas -- Columbia -- 4 1/2 STARS

Leonard Cohen has spent years patenting his unique sound: raspy, powerful baritone over spare acoustic guitar. However, Cohen’s secret in plain sight is that he’s never actually made a truly minimalist album. From the extensive instrumentation on 1967’s “Songs of Leonard Cohen” to the synthesizers and drum machines on 1988’s “I’m Your Man,” Cohen has made a career out of artfully avoiding his supposed trademark. His newest record, “Old Ideas,” follows this trend. The album, an impressive collection of delicate songs featuring biting, self-deprecating lyrics, is one of his finest releases and a deserving addition to his canon.

There are hints of minimalism here—“Crazy to Love You” really is nothing but Cohen and his acoustic guitar—but much more of the album is characterized by decidedly lush arrangements. These arrangements perfectly frame Cohen’s unabashed pop songs—the closing track, “Different Sides,” is remarkably catchy, and its gentle bounce would be entirely lost had it been arranged more sparsely. Like most of the other songs on the record, it makes fine use of electric piano and female backing vocals. During the chorus, these vocalists even pick up the lead melody. It’s possible that this was done purely out of necessity—Cohen’s vocal range certainly seems to have diminished—but these smooth vocals contrast nicely with his rough-edged voice, giving “Different Sides” a distinctive, almost threatening edge. Likewise, the electric piano makes the song more sprightly and accessible. Other tracks use these tricks even more heavily; on “Come Healing,” the female vocals that nearly upstage Cohen contribute to the song’s unique delectability.

Of course, these seductive pop backgrounds become more than simply pleasurable when they play out against Cohen’s resigned and sometimes bitter lyrics. “Old Ideas,” with its appealing blend of pop and depression, conjures up none other than the famed ’70s group Steely Dan, which played jazzy rock songs that viciously attacked the band’s audience of aging baby boomers and ex-hippies. There are clear differences between this album and the work of Steely Dan—that group rarely turned its anger and cynicism in on itself and incorporated more jazz influences in its work—but the connection between the two is important. Like Steely Dan’s best records, “Old Ideas” thrives on the tension between music and lyrics that don’t quite mesh together. “Going Home,” a compelling deconstruction of Cohen’s status as an artist, gains a certain dramatic power from the way his self-mocking lyrics are backed by the laid-back yet stately arrangement.

Part of the reason this mixture works so well is because Cohen remains a terrific lyricist. “Going Home” is powerful because of how thoroughly it subverts his image not only as a rock icon but also as a poet. When Cohen refers to himself as a “lazy bastard in a suit” and reminds himself that “he doesn’t have a burden,” there’s a sense of self-examination so strong and focused that other introspective rock songs pale in comparison. Incidentally, the lyrics to this track were deemed so uncommonly poignant that they were published as poetry in The New Yorker.

Of course, Cohen’s poems have always become more compelling when he transforms them into intricate songs. His finest tracks, from “So Long, Marianne” to “Hallelujah,” may have fantastic lyrics, but they’re also fully fleshed-out songs and not simply backing tracks for spoken poetry. This pattern holds true for “Going Home,” along with every other track on “Old Ideas.” With its accessible yet powerful sound, the album stands as a fabulous collection of pop songs with more than a hint of darkness.  It is also a potent reminder that Cohen, who has been in the music business for 45 years now, remains one of the few artists who releases works of a high caliber not just consistently, but nearly always.

—Staff writer Petey Menz can be reached at menz@college.harvard.edu.

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