Leonard Cohen sold off his song rights some years back, so he apparently doesn’t collect royalties for the most hilariously over-covered song in “American Idol” history. That’s bad for him, but good for us, since being cash-poor prompted the 70-something singer to come out of semi-retirement and return to the road in the late 2000s -- which, in turn, ultimately spurred the recording of “Old Ideas,” his first studio album in eight years.
As Jeff Buckley, Jason Castro, Lee DeWyze, Rufus Wainwright, Bon Jovi, and about a million other singers would all say: Hallelujah.
You could endlessly debate whether the standard by that name counts as an actual spiritual. (Very few gospel songwriters before Cohen ever thought to rhyme “hallelujah” with “what’s it to ya.”) That tradition continues in a big way on “Old Ideas,” where more of the songs than not have vaguely religious overtones.
He’s talking “old” as in Old Testament-type concerns -- the kind of spiritual-throwback stuff that never fails to baffle and delight fans, coming as it does from the world’s most dapper Buddhist.
The very first song, “Going Home,” brilliantly establishes his reverent irreverence. The choruses are pure gospel, really, with Cohen considering his mortality and singing about “going home without my burden… without the costume that I wore.”
Maybe he felt these death-themed thoughts were too earnest to put out there on their own, though. Because the verses are pure comedy, narrated by God himself, who arrogantly boasts that he dictates all his material to the hapless channeler “Leonard … a lazy bastard living in a suit.” Put them together, and you might have the most moving and funniest song Cohen ever wrote in one peculiar package.
Nothing on the rest of the album is quite so beautifully bizarre as that opener, but there are further spirituals … of a sort, one always hastens to add. The teaser track released late last year, “Show Me the Place,” gorgeously reunites him with old vocal partner Jennifer Warnes, in a kind of theological reprise of their classic “If It Be Your Will.” Even more stunning is “Come Healing,” a song that Christians and atheists alike might want to add to their hymnals.
So where’s the sex, you ask – since Cohen never turned full-on monk despite his time at that Buddhist monastery? It’s here, albeit with some old-age wrinkles (so to speak). “You want to change the way I make love/I want to leave it alone,” he complains in “Different Sides,” the album’s one argumentative ballad, and a cousin of sorts to U2’s “One.”
“Crazy to Love You” features Cohen alone, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar – a return to signature form that’ll startle fans who’ve been accustomed to the former folkie’s synthesizer jones over the last several decades. In this most confessional of confessional numbers. Cohen deftly sketches the temporary insanity of romantic obsession, then suggests that the ebbing of eroticism in advancing years might be a godsend.
“I’m tired of choosing desire/Been saved by a sweet fatigue,” he sings, candidly. “The gates of commitment unwired/And nobody trying to leave.”
The 77-year-old legend isn’t about to compete in any “Idol”-style singing contests himself, as his ever-more-baritonish vocals here skirt the fine line between vocalizing and spoken-word. The female backup singers he’s been making use of as Greek choruses for three decades usually show up by mid-song to give you a better idea of how the melodies actually go, and it’s a bit of a relief on “Come Healing” when the women actually start off the tune, allowing you to soak in its richness from the start.
That said, Cohen’s voice remains a rich instrument in its own right, even if its sonorousness is a little bit more percussive at this point than it is follow-the-bouncing-ball mellifluous. If there’s an apocalypse coming, his is the soothing voice you’d want to hear whispering you toward it.
For all the intimations of mortality on the album, “Old Ideas” is far from a downer, between Cohen’s wry way with words and the warmth inherent in the arrangements.
The great news is that he’s largely dumped the synth fascination that sometimes confounded fans on his most recent albums. Working with Patrick Leonard (of Madonna “Like a Prayer” fame) and a handful of other producers, he’s come back to primarily acoustic instrumentation that makes the album far friendlier and less like German cabaret music. There’s even a blues-styled number, “Darkness,” though it’s the lightest, airiest blues you’ve ever heard, so as not to drown out Cohen’s hushed ruminations on the wages and contagions of sin.
After the mixed reactions to his last album (2004’s underwhelming “Dear Heather”), “Old Ideas” firmly reestablishes Cohen as one-third of the holy trinity of weathered North American poet laureates, along with Dylan and Waits. It couldn’t happen to a better secular hymnodist.