It has been said of writers that, though their body of work contains numerous titles, they’ve really produced just a single book, variously revised.
The same can be said of Leonard Cohen, whose songs are, thematically, variations on a lifelong, personal disquietude. One in which longing always has the last word after yet another antidote has worn off. One in which the lament expressing inner turmoil over “the great defeat that awaits us all” ought to be rendered – as he puts it – with an ear for beauty and dignity.
The desire behind each declaration, as it comes through a Cohen song, may be to reach some resolution. But, since the conversation one has about certain fundamental matters is necessarily only with oneself, the questions become unanswerable. The spiritual, the cerebral, the carnal become pursuits without end – their meaning never in danger of being nailed down.
Unanswerable questions, then, are part of what tantalizes the listener of Cohen’s songs. That, and the way he approaches those three pursuits, which often seem indistinguishable.
Just when one feels that Cohen is addressing the Lord of song, just when one thinks the Y in a reverentially sung ‘You’ couldn’t be bigger, one realizes he may be addressing a lover. And vice versa. Until it becomes evident there is no reason to make a distinction between the two.
Giving thanks in October for an award in front of the comically stoic Spanish royalty, Cohen spoke of his indebtedness to Iberian soil. For his voice, which he honed upon discovering the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. For his song, which he honed in the wake of a chance meeting with a stranger playing a flamenco guitar in a park in Montreal.
As Cohen tells it, the young musician, who was Spanish, agreed to give him lessons, and through several encounters, impressed upon him six chords (played with a tremolo), which are the basis of much flamenco music. The common language between the two men was broken French — enough to get at the matter at hand. Not enough to get to know each other.
The tutelage ended when the Spaniard didn’t appear for another go. A call to the boarding house where the musician was staying revealed he had committed suicide.
Unanswerable questions. A tragic end. But also a door to a life of music swung open.
Those six chords, said Cohen, have been the source for all his songs.
And so it goes on.
And it is no surprise that on “Old Ideas” Cohen mines the preoccupations that have been with him from the beginning. The chart that holds the legend to it all has been available since 1967, when the first three stanzas of his debut album hit the air waves.
“Suzanne” took the listener down to the threshold where the needs of the body and the mind meet. That was Cohen at 33.
At 77, he’s after the same union, with mortality hanging lower on the horizon. The ten songs which map the pursuit feel whittled down to the essentials. Deceptively simple but resonant instrumentation. Cohen’s sonorous phrasing in well-wrought counterpoint to the voices of the various women who – though singing backup – are integral to the mood of each song.
Rarely has a bongo drum been so surprisingly poignant as on “Going Home.” (Is the song’s narrator the voice in the singer’s head? Is it a voice from some ineffable elsewhere? Perhaps it amounts to the same thing.)
Facing the inevitable, humor still has a way of getting in.
Yes, as “Come Healing” suggests in hymnal tones, the overriding attitude may be penitential. But, just when the sadness couldn’t run deeper, Cohen’s inner-Zorba interjects with impish abandon and reminds the self that there are pleasures yet to be had, so let’s have them:
“You want to live where the suffering is
I want to get out of town
C’mon baby give me a kiss
Stop writing everything down
Both of us say there are laws to obey
But frankly I don’t like your tone
You want to change the way I make love
I want to leave it alone”
The violin, charged once more with playing a crucial role, pierces the air with melodies that bring to mind Cohen’s perennial companions: gypsies, furiously alive.
The meandering trumpet solo on “Amen” ranks, by sheer heartrending loveliness, among the finest musical moments in Cohen’s career.
A Spanish guitar, which echoes some of his earliest work, helps make “Crazy to Love You” a serenade that’s truly “deeper than any goodbye.”
A country-blues bent gives “Banjo” just the right rhythm to let one suspect the very nature of what’s coming from that “dark infested sea.” Its effect not unlike that of an Ars Poetica, as a musician, aware of his lot, has it.
A measure of the quality of Cohen’s lyrics has always been that one continues to find in them new meaning. They are worth considering, in Pound’s sense, as the sailor considers the seaboard. That is, through an evolving perspective, which changes as the ship moves.
There is one noticeable shift. Cohen is now inclined to rely on fewer lines, to return to notions that have anchored many of his past songs, to repeat whole stanzas as if to emphasize that what he means to say is all there and needs no further elaboration.
Hearing “Old Ideas” is witnessing the inner-workings of one man’s lyrical mind. In words that he has made his own. Through songs in which it’s apparent no other words would as perfectly belong.
If that’s not enough, it behooves one to look inward and ask oneself: “You don’t really care for music, do you?”