Leonard Cohen is a poet and a notorious perfectionist, which means he chooses his words like most people pick spouses. As a title for his first studio album in eight years, Old Ideas fits perfectly, both for what it signifies (yet another return to the themes that have obsessed the 77-year-old singer-songwriter since his 1968 debut, Songs Of Leonard Cohen) and for what it literally is: unabashedly old. The songs are steeped in the language of the Bible, the spiritual release of great art, and the rhythms of sex—not since The Golden Girls has old-person fornication been described so fearlessly—but death is also at the forefront, rubbing up against bony but still-broad shoulders.
When Cohen rasps wolfishly on “Anyhow” about how “I’m naked and I’m filthy and there’s sweat upon my brow, and both of us are guilty anyhow,” he could be describing the post-coital crash from bliss, or lying helpless at the precipice of the afterlife. The pleasure of Old Ideas is watching Cohen deftly navigate these light and dark extremes like they’re one and the same.
As is customary for Cohen, the sex is sad and the dying is darkly comic on Old Ideas. Infatuation is conflated with addiction on “Darkness,” a jaunty blues number that slithers on a rumbling guitar and lounge-lizard Hammond organ fills, but Cohen welcomes the sensual poison, because “I’ve got no future, I know my days are few.” The slow shuffle “Going Home” finds him talking hilariously about himself in the third person, “a lazy bastard living in a suit” that’s been creatively dormant (publicly, anyway) for many years. Cohen might not appear to be in a hurry on Old Ideas—many of the songs move at an unrushed, jazzy pace—but his urgency is bracingly real: “It’s coming for me, darling, no matter where I go,” he sing-speaks on the album’s poppiest track, “Banjo.” “It’s duty is to harm me, my duty is to know.”
But Old Ideas isn’t a morbid record; for Cohen, misery and ecstasy have always been equally vital byproducts of a life lived to the fullest. Fittingly, the album is all warmth, putting Cohen’s improbably expressive smoker’s purr in the middle of simple yet sumptuous instrumentation, like the beautiful flamenco guitar that echoes through “Crazy To Love You,” or the stately gospel piano that lifts “Show Me The Place.” Cohen might ask to be redeemed for his sins on the self-described “penitential hymn” “Come Healing,” but he isn’t about to apologize for them, or regret where they’ve taken him.