Mass culture gave rise to all manner of self-mythologized pop icons in the 20th century, brilliant tricksters who reinvented themselves in front of the camera and microphone. And as these self-made legends reach the twilight of their lives, it’s only natural that they would re-evaluate just what it all meant.
Leonard Cohen makes it clear from the start that that’s what he’s up to on the opening track of his new album, Old Ideas, when he sings about himself in third person: “I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit/But he does say what I tell him/Even though it isn’t welcome/He just doesn’t have the freedom to refuse.”
There’s the flesh-and-blood Leonard Cohen, and then there’s the self-created myth, which he knows has become the more enduring figure and will outlive him. Cohen turned to music at the relatively late age of 33, after he’d failed to make a fortune as a poet and novelist. He has a poet’s ear for language, and he crafted some starkly beautiful music and lines that resonated. He sang about his romantic exploits, war, and betrayal in ways that felt epic. The music was suitable both for a seduction and an alcoholic breakdown.
His voice and sound did not age so well, though, and while he was capable of still writing great songs (such as 1988’s “Everybody Knows”), his recent albums have lacked the romantic gypsy feel of his earlier music. Old Ideas is his best album in years and it follows the trend of ’60s icons making music in their old age. The most obvious comparison is to Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, but also Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, Marianne Faithfull’s Before the Poison, James Taylor’s Hourglass, and the eternally young Neil Young’s Le Noise. The old-age album is fast becoming a genre of its own, and it is fascinating to see how these icons who have shaped our culture confront old age. Some, like Dylan, are better at it than others, of course.
At times on Old Ideas, Cohen sounds as happy as he ever has, like on the soulful “Banjo,” where he ruminates on an old banjo floating in the sea: “Maybe taken by the wave/Off of someone’s shoulder/Or out of someone’s grave.”
The banjo is a metaphor both for death and art, and “Its duty is to harm me/My duty is to know.” No matter what life holds for him, Cohen feels a need to face it and describe it unflinchingly.
This attitude at times turns to self-pity and can be hard to stomach. On “Show Me the Place,” he makes himself out to be a slave for his art: “Show me the place where you want your slave to go.” It’s romantic to imagine yourself bound by some duty, but Cohen was never anyone’s slave.
Interesting that, pushing 80, Cohen’s happy songs are far more touching than his brooding ones, which were always his forte. “Lullaby” is a comfort to a young child or a lover: “Sleep, baby, sleep/There’s a morning to come/The wind in the trees/Is talking in tongues.”
But when Cohen’s mood turns dark, the album bogs down. The problem is that Cohen has always been that mopey existentialist, mourning and celebrating lost love and life. One of his most haunting tracks is “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”—whose melody is echoed on Old Ideas’ “Crazy to Love You.” “Chelsea Hotel” was a reminiscence of his affair with the late Janis Joplin, and it is both cruel and tender. He sings to Joplin, telling her she “got away, just turned your back on the crowd.”
I’m sure that fame gets plenty lonely at times, but the idea that Joplin “got away” while Cohen was left behind to suffer some more was always romantic horseshit. And while Old Ideas has plenty of rewards, it doesn’t seem like Cohen has learned that being alive is its own reward.
And, to be honest, I would much rather hear what Joplin, who would have turned 69 last month, would be singing today and how she would have faced the twilight of her life.