Launching his first new studio album for eight years in London two weeks ago, Leonard Cohen described the songwriting process as "perseverance, perspiration, but also a certain kind of grace and illumination". The 77-year-old Canadian legend neglected to mention financial necessity, but that was also a key motivation behind Old Ideas. In 2006, the singer won a civil lawsuit against his former manager Kelley Lynch after US$5 million (Dh18m) went missing from his retirement fund, leaving him virtually penniless. Despite his court victory, Cohen is unlikely ever to recover the money.
Instead, the famously reticent songsmith was forced back on the road with his 2008-9 world tour, one of the biggest and most successful of his long career. A rapturous live reception helped rekindle his dormant songwriting muse, and Old Ideas is the result. A world-weary masterpiece to rank alongside the autumnal Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash, this archly titled album is the kind of magisterial third-act comeback that confirms the adage about every cloud having a solid-gold lining. Cohen's one-man financial crisis has been a windfall for music fans everywhere. Laughing in the face of cosmic cruelty, the Samuel Beckett of pop is back.
Most songwriters approaching 80 might be expected to reflect on waning powers and encroaching mortality. Old Ideas certainly contains melancholy ruminations and hard-won wisdom, but always leavened with mordant wit. Although Cohen began his career as a sombre poet-minstrel, he matured in middle age into a laconic, ironic, sardonic crooner. This delicate balancing act between despair and delight, misery and mischief, is one of the album's most agreeable qualities. The knees may creak but the eyes still twinkle.
The opening track Going Home, for example, is a lugubrious late-night crawl in which Cohen reflects on his own stage persona in the third person, his voice the half-spoken stage whisper of a Faustian puppet master. Later, on the romantic break-up confessional Anyhow, he grovels for mercy with comically deadpan desperation: "Even though you have to hate me, could you hate me less?" Aside from a couple of sketchy numbers, every track here unfolds with a soft, slinky, understated beauty. Working with the former Madonna producer and co-writer Patrick Leonard, Cohen sticks to sparse arrangements grounded in folk, blues and lounge jazz. Where once this approach sounded austere and sterile, these songs now radiate a lived-in warmth enhanced by antique-sounding instruments like the cornet, banjo and archilaud.
But the most remarkable instrument of all, of course, remains Cohen's singular voice. Always a low rumble, it has ripened in old age into a mud-caked bass baritone as dry as ancient parchment. And yet it has rarely sounded as emotionally expressive as it does on the liturgical lament Show Me the Place, where it becomes a sepulchral mumble, or on the spectral sighs that waft through the gently rolling waltz Lullaby.
Fortunately, as is now traditional, the croaky-voiced crooner smartly deploys female backing singers to sweeten and soften his own grizzled growls, their soul-soothing tones bringing a gospel-music uplift to mournful numbers like the gorgeous Amen and the ghostly Come Healing. The harmonious contrast is generally sublime, like sunshine peeking through heavy rainclouds.
There is little point digging for transparent biographical clues in the lyrics to Old Ideas, typically opaque poetic ruminations layered with spiritual and romantic metaphor. But perhaps there is a nod to Cohen's recent financial setbacks in Darkness, a smoky-voiced blues ballad weighing up years of loss and disappointment: "I thought the past would last me, but the darkness got that too."
Cohen may be staring into darkness on Old Ideas, but this valedictory album does not sound like a funeral march. After all, the gravel-voiced grandmaster is already planning another tour and hinting at further possible recordings. Regrets? He's had a few. But he clearly still has enough perseverance and grace to make wise, wondrous, life-affirming music.
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