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Review: Leonard Cohen, ‘Old Ideas’

performs during day 1 of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival held at the Empire Polo Club on April 17, 2009 in Indio, California.
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: January 31, 2012
Label: Columbia

My grandma’s friend Willy told me the funniest and most honest thing I’ve ever heard an old person say. This was maybe two years ago, when I was visiting the retirement home where they both live. I asked Willy how he was doing. “The medicine they’re giving me for my cancer’s giving me boobs,” he said matter-of-factly, “but they got some pretty nurses here who think I’m” — and he bit down hard on this next word — “cute.” “So,” he shrugged, “I’ll get along till it’s time to go.”

Yep, it sucks to be old. When he was a spry 53-year-old, Leonard Cohen sang, “I ache in the places where I used to play.” He’s 77 now, so I can only imagine how he feels. But like Willy hinted, the cute crap can hurt worse than the body breaking down. Get past retirement age, and we’d rather pretend you’re sexless (Betty White excepted). So there’s some discomfort when, on the slyly priapic “Anyhow,” from his wonderfully unsentimental, beautifully tuneful Old Ideas, Cohen lends his grizzled roué’s growl to the line “I’m naked and I’m filthy and there’s sweat upon my brow.” Dirty old man. Shame on me.

Is there a situation where a dude Cohen’s age with an impure mind isn’t deemed inappropriate? (God forbid gramps gets a boner.) Fueling that question is the shittiest, noncorporeal thing about winding down the clock — and it’s an impulse that Old Ideas, Cohen’s first album of all-new material in eight years, is determined to deny. Simply put, the man knows we put oldies in a box before we put them in the ground.

Nowhere is this more true than in popular — or in Cohen’s case, semipopular — music. Graybeards generally get two songs to sing: The Old’n’Plucky Rag or the ‘Bout-to-Die Dirge. In the former, the graybeard’s harmless amiability casts a sweetly reassuring spell. That’s the idea, anyway, of a record like 69-year-old Paul McCartney’s new standards collection, Kisses on the Bottom, which with its sugary string arrangements and air of assumed nostalgia has all the charm of a codger intent on sticking a Werther’s Original in your ear.

Then there’s the last-testament tip, wherein wizened types impart solemn wisdom about what they learned, who they loved, and what they never knew they had, in always-stark musical settings (see 75-year-old Glen Campbell’s The Ghost in the Canvas, from late last year; or 70-year-old Neil Diamond’s most recent servings of aged American cheese.) In each of these instances, there’s no ambiguity and the emotional spectrum is dim. No deep red sensuality and/or black humor and/or dark blue longing. You only get one mood, old-timer. Make do.

Or don’t. In his inimitably conspiratorial manner, Cohen uses Old Ideas to subvert what we expect from an alter kocker like him. Namely, easy answers or pat wisdom. The first track, “Going Home,” is a sardonic gag about the very idea of the aged-master artist. On it, Cohen sing-speaks with more strength and subtlety than he did on 2004’s Dear Heather (playing 168 shows between 2008 and 2010 must’ve helped), playing the role of inspiration itself. “He will speak these words of wisdom / Like a sage, a man of vision,” he intones, his own rinky-dink keyboard a cheeky ripple in a warm pool of cooing female voices, “Though he knows he’s really nothing / But the brief elaboration of a tube.” He’s not talking TVs.

Even the songs that seem to explicitly address the big D are full of feints. The suavely lascivious blues-lurch “The Darkness” measures pain as a fight between love and death that neither wins. Later, the hymnlike “Come Healing” finds Cohen, backed by the Webb sisters’ chastely angelic vocals, asking us: “See the darkness yielding / That tore light apart.” But those backup singers — their voices are so eerily pretty that they sound like a taunt, or maybe a mirage. On the smoky, seven-minute “Amen” — which could be a bemused response to his own “Hallelujah” — Cohen pleads for understanding, only to admit that he’s had vengeance on the mind. And while he’s soft-shoeing away from any final sentence, a shrugging synth-bass and smirking trumpet take turns shading the lyrics with solace or shame. Then there’s “Show Me the Place,” which wafts by on a breeze of Sunday-morning organ swells. That one’s mostly just lovely — and lingers nowhere near as long as the casually loping “Banjo,” in which a busted ‘jo stands in for the reaper. Aging is nothing if not absurd.

In an interview shortly before the album’s release, Cohen said he’d start smoking again if he makes it to 80. I say light up now, Leonard, because Old Ideas proves that you know as well as anyone that Death doesn’t care for the fuzzy-wuzzies. And he loves a good laugh.