These days, Leonard Cohen makes albums mostly because he has to. His then-manager famously emptied his bank accounts several years ago, and Cohen, 77, must now spend what would otherwise be his golden years touring and recording.
“Old Ideas,” only Cohen’s 12th studio album since 1967 but his best since the Reagan-era “I’m Your Man,” makes veiled reference to his twin Troubles, old age and lack of money: “I’ve got no future/ I know my days are few,” he intones grimly, because he always intones grimly, in “Darkness.” “I thought the past would last me/ But the darkness got that, too.”
“Old Ideas” is, it hardly need be said, a work of genius, even if its title is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both resplendent and grim, it tills the same ground Cohen has furrowed since he began making albums in his 30s, when he was a young man who only sounded old. All of its tropes are familiar ones, though familiarity in no way blunts their impact. It’s a pungent mix of the sacred and the profane, the sexual and the sepulchral, with a probably necessary emphasis on the latter.
Jennifer Warnes, Cohen’s frequent collaborator, once described Cohen’s music as “the place where God and sex and literature meet.” These days, Cohen makes it plain he’ll settle for two out of three: “I’m tired of choosing desire,” he admits in the gentle acoustic ballad “Crazy to Love You.” “I’ve been saved by a blessed fatigue/ The gates of commitment unwired/ And nobody trying to leave.”
Warnes shows up on “Old Ideas,” as do Cohen’s other longtime backing singers, the Webb Sisters, but musically, at least, the disc is stripped nearly to its bones. Gone is both the unfortunate reliance on synthesizers that colored Cohen’s recent releases, and the overuse of younger female vocal partners, which tended to emphasize his vocal resemblance to the crypt keeper. These are skeletal ballads or minimalist exercises in the blues or, mostly, logy, late-night lounge numbers, all put forth with a minimum of fuss. They exist mostly as picture frames for Cohen’s lyrics, and to save “Old Ideas” from being a spoken-word album, but otherwise aren’t meant to bother anybody.
In “Going Home,” which was also published as a poem in the New Yorker, Cohen’s alter ego, we’ll call him Not Leonard, addresses the specter of the famous troubadour, Actual Leonard: “He will speak these words of wisdom/ Like a sage, a man of vision,” explains Not Leonard. “Though he knows he’s really nothing/ But the brief elaboration of a tube.” What “tube” refers to is anybody’s guess — a corporeal being? A television set? The British transportation system?
The Tom Waits-ian “Amen,” with its lonely horn solo, is equally opaque: It may be the most dire track on a disc that visibly struggles to balance shadows and light, the genial, dinged-up oracle version of Cohen with the darker one beneath. “Tell me again that you know what I’m thinking,” he rumbles. “Vengeance belongs to the Lord.” Or is it “the bored”? Its title might suggest a sequel to “Hallelujah,” one of Cohen’s most ineluctably hopeful songs and America’s favorite secular hymn, but “Amen,” like all the best moments on “Old Ideas,” is Old Testament all the way.