The Common Good

Leonard Cohen's Stellar New 'Old Ideas' Explores Spirituality, Mortality

It doesn’t seem seven years since Leonard Cohen’s last album because the man has spent the middle years of his 70s up to his wrinkles in a whole lot of activity including critically acclaimed concert tours that produced a plethora of CDs and DVDs and a No.1 hit single via the dubious conduit of X Factor winner Alexandra Burke!

The years between 2004's Dear Heather and his latest album Old Ideas have built Cohen’s status to a Zen guru presence. For weeks there has been anticipation about this new record not because the public is imagining some reinvention at the age of 77 but more that he is the closest thing rock music has to a spiritual sage and we are waiting for the wisdom he has to share.

Old Ideas is no disappointment for those looking for spiritual songs.

As always even with his Zen Buddhist practice and Jewish faith doesn’t stop some excursions into Christianity. On "Amen" he sings, “When the filth of the butcher/is washed in the blood of the lamb...” and on "Show Me The Place", “Show me the place/Where the Word became a man...”

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has a capital letter and it is hard to get past John’s Gospel, chapter 1 and verse 1. Prayers, penitential hymns and search for sacred insight is rampant on this collection of songs. Healing, mercy, solace, peace and justice are sought throughout.

As always Cohen’s life and songs are well balanced with darkness, desire and guilt but it could be that in some ways his aging has slowed down his ability to; “I’m tired of choosing desire/Been saved by a sweet fatigue” he sings on "Crazy To Love You", written with his girlfriend Anjani.

Cohen’s age does seem to hang over this collection of songs. I guess if it has been seven years since your last record and you realise that if it is seven years until your next and that you’ll be 84 years old by then that you might be sensing your time running out. Mortality has been on the mind of Cohen's good mate Robert Zimmerman in recent years, Paul Simon has been thinking "Afterlife" too!

The opening song on Old Ideas is God speaking with Cohen and trying to direct is art. Perhaps God has seen the drawing of a naked woman on the CD and wants to change Cohen’s direction but he is certainly encouraging Cohen to share divine messages. The song is titled "Going Home" and suggests that Cohen is on his way there with no sorrow or burden; heaven beckons!  

Musically, it is as I said, nothing ground breaking. That would be sacrilegious! A few strings here and more importantly a few female vocals (check "Come Healing" for instance) there to give tone and shade to Cohen’s often little more than spoken husky whisper are enough to set up these songs. Even the lyrics are so much simpler than say a "Hallelujah" or a "Tower Of Song."

All in all Cohen has come up with another mature bunch of reflections on the shades of light and darkness that spin around the human life. Another meditative reflection on the spiritual; serenity with potency. The gauntlet is thrown; 2012 you have eleven months to better this one!

Steve Stockman the minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and blogs regularly on the intersection of faith and culture at Soul Surmise, where this reflection first appeared.

Image: Leonard Cohen performs in front of a big audience for his only Italian date of the tour: Florence, piazza Santa Croce on September 1, 2010. Photo by Route66/shutterstock.

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