“I love to speak with Leonard” is the opening line of “Going Home,” the first track on Leonard Cohen’s new album, Old Ideas. With surprising immediacy, Cohen deconstructs his identity and announces everything you need to know about this record. It’s a meditation on who “Leonard Cohen” is, where he’s been, and where he has yet to go. This being his twelfth studio record, it’s about time he has this discussion with himself. He’s never been more self-aware than on this record, but he’s earned the right to look back, lament, and laugh.
“Going Home” continues: “He’s a lazy bastard / Living in a suit / But he does say what I tell him / Even though it isn’t welcome / He will never have the freedom / To refuse.” It’s hard to say which part of Cohen is speaking here and whether the troubadour or the man is in charge. Who speaks for whom? Does it really matter, now, this late in the game, whether we can separate the man from the myth? Can he be anything else now? The short answer, by Cohen’s estimation, is “no”. The long answer is still “no,” but it comes with a wink.
Old Ideas plays with all things Leonard Cohen. The title itself reveals its playfulness. The themes presented on the record—romances gone awry and the remorse felt after—are old ideas. They’re timeless even. But more than that, the title describes the record. Its sound is sparse and acoustic. It harkens back to early Cohen. It’s a return, which is likely why the first track is titled “Going Home.” The synth-pop that marked his later records is gone. Now we’re left with Cohen stripped almost bare. Lyrics half-whispered come across as secrets, and he has much to reveal.
These songs are diverse, running the gamut from jazzy ballads to easygoing blues. Still, they feel of a whole. No single track sounds out of place. They’re tied together by Cohen’s unmistakable timbre, profundity, and humor. “Crazy to Love You” is a song about going mad to love someone you know isn’t the one. It blooms on the soft strumming of guitar strings, recalling Cohen classics like “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974). The track “Lullaby” is a countryesque ballad you could easily hear in a small town bar, if that bar was The Roadhouse in the town of Twin Peaks. Above all, the songs on Old Ideas are tied together by the weight of regret, the kind only known after a lifetime of loves, both broken and unfinished.
These lost romances carry with them a burden, one that can’t be unborne. Despite this burden, Old Ideas suggests there can still be moments of reconciliation, salvation, and even heavenly grace. True, Cohen complicates these ideas, suggesting grace is not so much about God as it is forgiveness. To have your lover take you back is salvation. The third track, “Amen,” rhapsodizes over this salvation. “Tell me again when I’m clean and I’m sober,” Cohen sings. “Tell me that you love me then / Amen.” The line between lover and higher power is blurred. It’s sexual and desperate: “Try me again when the angels are panting / And scratching at the door to come in.” While the song may sound like a hymn, it is anything but. Its divinity keeps succumbing to something more beautiful than salvation—darkness. But for Cohen that’s more than alright. Here even despair has its comforts.