Best of 2012: The penitential hymn
I never imagined it would be possible. Some legends are legends for a reason and I’ve always been enamoured of Dylan. Admittedly I mostly get down with his earlier work, before he turned into a bullfrog with a lymphatic disease. I had high hopes when I finally saw him live four or five years ago but my tickets were almost as far away from the stage as possible and the performance happening upon it wasn’t quite compelling enough to convince me to continue paying attention. Guys, it was BAD.
Which is ironic, right? Because there’s a weird parallel between Dylan and Canada’s perennial (unofficial) poet laureate Leonard Cohen. Both started out as young poets; while they came to music in different ways for different reasons they both rose to the top of the game; both have seen their voices ravaged by time, though (in my opinion) only one of them remains listenable. Like I said, legends are legends for a reason. Cohen is the very definition and Old Ideas is all the evidence the world needs to see that hasn’t changed.
Cohen here is the same old Cohen, but this record seems amplified in a way. He’s released several albums since spending five years during the 90s in seclusion in a Buddhist monastery but, like his last few efforts, the songs on Old Ideas unsurprisingly strike a generally non-monastic tone. His career-long obsessions are present in the themes of sex, death, desperation, religion, and redemption have remained intact.
The terrific “Home Again” opens the record, setting the tone for what’s to come. In it Cohen seems to be referring to himself in the third person, perhaps seeing the Leonard Cohen that once existed as a person he no longer is and doesn’t particularly like. Or maybe he’s come to associate making music with his less-enlightened past. “I love to speak with Leonard,” he says. “He’s a sportsman and a shepherd. He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit. But he does say what I tell him even though it isn’t welcome; he just doesn’t have the freedom to refuse. He will speak these words of wisdom like a sage, a man of vision, though he knows he’s really nothing.” In this context “going home” could be his return to music, something he evidently had no choice in; his former manager pilfered some $5 million from Cohen’s retirement bank account (in addition to stealing from other accounts), leaving him with only $150,000. He returned to the touring circuit, leading up to the release of this album and his current, recently-extended world tour. Those developments are foremost in his mind, as evidenced in “The Darkness” when he laments, “I’ve got no future, I know my days are few…I thought the past would last me but the darkness got that too.”
Cohen’s aural palette on this latest platter lies somewhere in between his earliest work and his overly-keyboardy 80s material. Acoustic guitars, occasionally even nylon-stringed ones, are plucked here and there throughout; keyboards are present but they’re never overpowering and they don’t fill the mix; string arrangements are layered throughout to rapturous effect. But the overall feeling is sparseness, as Cohen’s voice and those that sing behind and alongside him take up the most space in each song, leaving the instruments that do appear in a minor role to serve the melody. That shouldn’t be surprising; his songs always have the words up front, and for good reason.
Mortality might be on Cohen’s mind these days, as redemption, maybe even retribution, of a biblical nature is contemplated on songs like “Amen,” “Show Me The Place,” and “Come Healing.” The first is a languid string ballad, a contemplation of the kind of stark imagery presented in the more literal interpretations of bible stories. Cohen talks about the kingdom coming, pleading, “Tell me again when the filth of the butcher is washed in the blood of the lamb.” His mantra here is one of personal debauchery: “Tell me again when I’m clean and I’m sober. Tell me again when I’ve seen through the horror.” It’s a seven and a half minute meditation that sees Cohen’s desiccated vocals living in the middle ground between sanguine and sabulous. It’s a trick only the aged Cohen can pull off. “Show Me The Place” seems to have some more direct biblical references; “Show me the place, help me roll away the stone. Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone. Show me the place where the word became a man. Show me the place where the suffering began.”
“Come Healing” is hands-down my favourite song here, even while it makes some of the most overt references to Christ. “The splinters that you carry,” he mumbles, “the cross you left behind. Come healing of the body, come healing of the mind. And let the heavens hear it: the penitential hymn. Come healing of the spirit, come healing of the limb.” Now I am far less of a spiritual person than Cohen but the themes of penitence and regret and misery that run through this record like a river are universal, regardless of where you stand when it comes to salvation. But “Come Healing” relies on Cohen’s sometimes-surprising sense of melody to make the song appealing. The tender melody soars, thanks to Cohen’s cadre of back-up singers. They harmonize effortlessly throughout the song, lightening the quiet intensity of Cohen’s barely-audible mutterings and creating a rapturous, sumptuous tapestry of sound that is among the loveliest thing I’ve ever heard.
The apparent focus on all things spiritual isn’t shocking for someone who has spent roughly forty years analyzing the weightiest parts of the human condition. I don’t expect that Cohen is looking for his own absolution in these songs; his roll-with-the-punches demeanor suggests he’s either already come to peace with his maker or he’s decided it isn’t something he needs to worry about just yet. His obsessions can be seen as taboo subjects but the real heart of this album is what happens after the fall and how people can get themselves right in their own heads and hearts.
I’ll concede that this is not the typical album we talk about here on SSA. Major label releases are not our usual fare, let alone those by long-established industry heavyweights. I chose this record for our year-end focus because I felt like the response it generated wasn’t nearly adequate considering the overwhelming terrificness of it. When a legend puts out a new album without losing an iota of their presence, talent, or power that should be celebrated.