TORONTO – Leonard Cohen spent years mulling the songs that comprise his 12th disc, “Old Ideas,” but fortunately he’s that rare artist whose work doesn’t wilt under the weight of prolonged scrutiny and reassessment.
The protracted process even gave the Montreal poet — whose last release came in 2004 — the necessary perspective to review his own album, on his own album.
“I love to speak with Leonard, he’s a sportsman and a shepherd/ He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit,” Cohen murmurs on opening track “Going Home,” barely raising his voice above a whisper, sounding as though he could use a hearty meal and maybe a shave.
“He will speak these words of wisdom, like a sage, a man of vision/ Though he knows he’s really nothing but the brief elaboration of a tube.”
The record’s droll title likely refers to the fact that this is territory that Cohen has covered before: love, death, sex, God. But it doesn’t do justice to the growth exhibited by the 77-year-old here, nor the risks he takes with his new record, hitting stores this week.
The record shuffles forth in a languid haze, but the supple playing of a live band gives Cohen’s wispy tunes a tactile verve that wards off torpor.
The stunning “Amen” — a song of remorse and redemption — feels like a sticky summer day, with banjo tweaks and stately violin relieving the humidity of the synths. With the bluesy, swaggering “Darkness,” Cohen seems to grin through his strut even while tossing off a series of pitch-black observations (sample: “The present’s not that pleasant, just a lot of things to do/ I thought the past would last me, but the darkness got that too.”)
It’s difficult to cherrypick standout lines because so many of Cohen’s insightful ruminations sear through the lyric page. Given the album’s title and Cohen’s age, listeners might have fairly expected the sort of nostalgic, late-career stock-taking that has provided rejuvenation for several aging musical masters in recent years.
But sentimentality rarely seeps through, and Cohen sounds as though he’s yet to surrender to the serenity of old age. On “Crazy to Love You” — a gentle collaboration with Anjani Thomas — he describes the frustration of a failed romantic conquest, but sounds resigned toward repeating the cycle again.
“Sometimes I’d head for the highway, I’m old and the mirrors don’t lie,” he sings. “But crazy has places to hide in, deeper than saying goodbye.”
In theory, “Old Ideas” could be perfectly situated as a farewell from one of the most enduring poets Canada has produced. But it’s a blessing that Cohen simply has too much left to say.