All My Little Words

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

Posted in Music by nickchristian on March 18, 2012

Last week I tweeted an endorsement of Leonard Cohen’s new record. After two full listens it felt like a really strong album, deserving of praise certainly, but not one that would have necessarily troubled last 2011’s end of year lists. Since then there have been several more trips to the end of the album and back and, well, things have changed.

To understand how, I think we have to return to 2008, Glastonbury Festival, and Leonard Cohen’s Sunday evening performance on the Pyramid Stage. It had been a rough weekend, in the best of ways, and having slept barely at all the previous night, at the end of a glorious summer’s day my legs were past their last. I might have wanted to head forwards to join the many thousand strong standing throng but biology refused. In the end, it didn’t matter as the music and the atmosphere travelled. Boy, did it travel.

From some distance up the hill we sat mesmerised by a master, rumbling through a performance the worth of which was many times more than the sum of its priceless parts. The highlight of the set was always going to be Hallelujah, but it could not have been anticipated quite how high this would be. I couldn’t stay seated any longer.

An unreliable memory has the song starting right on sunset and with sunset that evening at 9.21, the performance having started at ten past eight, that feels about right. Whether the timing was deliberate or coincidental I’m not sure I need to know, but certainly the celestially clear skies were impossible to predict as the last of the evening’s light left the valley and one of the greatest choruses in popular music rang out across the Somerset hills. That was the moment I, along with many others, lost it.

At the time and since I have attributed the tears shed in that field to, as much as anything else, exhaustion, electrolytes and having had one helluva weekend. Last Tuesday morning I listened to Show Me The Place for what must have been the fifth or sixth time and experienced an almost identical response. Bear in mind I was at work.

The troubles came, I saved what I could save
A thread of light, a particle, a wave
But there were chains so I hastened to behave
There were chains so I loved you like a slave.

Maybe it shouldn’t come as such a surprise. It might sound like a lofty goal but music, as all art, should seek to affect; the listener, in turn, should expect, or at least aspire, to be affected. Music can of course serve many mistresses but that is my own principal raison d’ecouter and while that can mean many things besides tears, it seems it’s only listening to Leonard that provokes this particular emotional response.

To my ears Leonard Cohen’s unique brilliance lies in his grasp of the present and the beguilingly beautiful tone he adopts in order to express his outlook on it. Music, I feel, is rarely humble and seldom relatable and on the whole, I think that’s fine but Cohen is a master of communicating meaning and it’s hard not to be grateful.

Old Ideas sounds like an album about having aged. Not about ageing, because it doesn’t seem to speak of process and doesn’t feel comparative, nor of age as the subject matter relates to death, because it doesn’t appear to look beyond itself. Living in the present is a difficult trick to master but Leonard Cohen, impressively self-understanding, appears to have managed it.

The lyrics matter, of course they do, and it is nigh impossible to talk about Leonard Cohen without talking about them. As much as he is musician, he is poet. Still, it is the sound of the words as sung that matters more to me, how that sound compliments and conjoins with the music that proves their worth. The rumbling bass of Cohen himself gently and discreetly balanced by the angel choral harmonies of the Webb sisters. As lovely as the lyrics are they almost deserve a separate study; I’ve scattered a few sets through this piece so if you like these, do seek out the rest.

I’ve got no future
I know my days are few
The present’s, not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got there too.

This is not, I should be very clear, an album review, because I can’t promise you’ll experience anything like the same reaction I did. I can, however, promise an album with immense depth and uniquely articulate profundity. If that’s your thing, go get it.

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