RedEye

Album review: Leonard Cohen, 'Old Ideas'

3.5 stars (out of 4)

It doesn’t seem possible, but Leonard Cohen’s voice sounds even deeper, darker, more foreboding than ever on his 12th studio album in 44 years, “Old Ideas” (Columbia). Cohen is 77, and he doesn’t really bother to sing anymore. Instead, he divulges his inner-most hang-ups and bleakest jokes with the barely-above-a-whisper deliberation and gravitas of an undertaker or a prison warden.

His measured, amelodic cadences may leave nonbelievers wondering why this guy creates such a fuss among fans and songwriting connoisseurs. But the approach suits songs of moral complexity, a pile-up of poignant images and punch lines that conflate mortality, romance, tragedy and comedy.

As a lyricist, Cohen has few peers, a poet whose songs have been championed by everyone from director Robert Altman to Kurt Cobain. But for the last two decades his albums have sagged beneath the cheese applied by gratuitous synthesizers and keyboards. Intensive recent touring has served him well, however, and the singer has cleared out some of the production clutter on “Old Ideas.” The sparer, more spacious arrangements allow Cohen to inject his deadpan baritone with a subtle theatricality. There’s a smile in his voice as he mocks himself in “Going Home,” a hymn-like solemnity in “Show Me the Place,” a bleak bluesy twistedness in “Darkness.” “I said, ‘Is this contagious?’/ You said, ‘Just drink it up,’ ” he mutters.

The latter song is built on little more than Cohen’s voice and an acoustic guitar, and each musical touch is carefully considered and absolutely appropriate as the arrangements subtly shuffle genres. A rickety banjo gives way to wan trumpet in “Amen,” backing singers sigh and swoon in the sly saloon ballad “Anyhow,” a campfire harmonica transports “Lullaby” into one of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns.

Though Cohen’s age and subject matter might suggest otherwise, “Old Ideas” is not another of the dreaded winter-of-my-years albums that have become a cottage industry in music in recent decades. The notion of staring into the abyss with a certain age-appropriate steeliness and poignance helped Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan revive their careers on pivotal ‘90s albums. But since then, albums about the “dying of the light” by late-period icons have become a cliché. Not so with Cohen, who’s still feisty after all these years, his entanglements with love and aging documented with wicked wit and an attitude that is anything but sentimental.

greg@gregkot.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • Best music recordings of 2011

    Best music recordings of 2011

    Tribune music critics Greg Kot (pop/rock), Howard Reich (jazz) and John Von Rhein (classical) weigh in on their picks of the best recordings in 2011.

  • Chicago sues red light camera firm for $300 million

    Chicago sues red light camera firm for $300 million

    Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration has sued Chicago's former red light camera operator, Redflex Traffic Systems, for more than $300 million on grounds the entire program was built on a $2 million bribery scheme at City Hall that has already led to federal corruption convictions.

  • Marrow's 'The Gold Standard' raises the Chicago rock bar

    Marrow's 'The Gold Standard' raises the Chicago rock bar

    The four musicians in Marrow know quite a bit about bringing diverse influences to the table. After all, three of them, singer-guitarist Liam Kazar, singer-keyboardist Macie Stewart and bassist Lane Beckstrom were in Kids These Days, a now-defunct septet that combined jazz, funk, rap and rock in...

  • The Kids These Days family tree

    The Kids These Days family tree

    From its 2009 beginnings to its 2013 demise, Chicago's Kids These Days seemed like one of the most promising acts the city had seen in years. While the band split up at the height of its hype, its members have since gone on to do bigger and better things—seriously impressive considering the hip-hop/rock/jazz...

  • Solid 'Gold': How ex-Kids These Days members came back stronger as Marrow

    Solid 'Gold': How ex-Kids These Days members came back stronger as Marrow

    After the dissolution of Kids These Days, the much-buzzed about Chicago fusion-jazz-rock-rap septet that split in spring 2013 just a few months after releasing its only album, “Traphouse Rock,” some of its members spent what seems like all of 20 minutes bandless. "We were driving back from the...

  • Mr Twin Sister's 'In the House of Yes' is one of last year's hidden treasures

    Mr Twin Sister's 'In the House of Yes' is one of last year's hidden treasures

    Welcome to RedEye's "Song of the Day," an ongoing feature where music reporter Josh Terry or another RedEye staff member highlights something they're listening to. Some days the track will be new, and some days it will be old. No matter what, each offering is something you should check out. Check...

Comments
Loading
74°