Old Ideas by Leonard Cohen (Columbia)
Ringing Roger, March 2012
It’s an odd title for a ‘pop’ album: almost defiantly un-cool. But what does it mean? On the one hand we might think of Cohen’s age: these are the ‘old ideas’ that might well go through the mind of someone in his late seventies, who has had the extraordinary life that he’s had, and who is facing up to his own mortality. A song called ‘Darkness’ confronts the fact that ‘I got no future / I know my days are few.’ On the other hand ‘old ideas’ could refer to the traditional wisdom which is to be found at the heart of all the major religions. After all, Cohen was raised a Jew, early on developed a fascination with the figure of Jesus, and finally espoused Zen Buddhism.
Is, then, the album’s main theme the need to free oneself of one’s worldly concerns and devote oneself to higher principles? Well, not exactly. In ‘Going Home’, someone called ‘Leonard’ (?!) expresses the desire to write ‘a love song / An anthem of forgiving / A manual for living with defeat / A cry above the suffering / A sacrifice recovering.’ But the other presence in the song – religious master? poetic muse? – does not want to grant his request: ‘I want to make him certain / That he doesn’t have a burden / That he doesn’t need a vision.’
Perhaps, then, the main ‘idea’ of the album is that we need to go beyond all ‘ideas’, old and new. If so, then that would be in keeping with the Zen which Cohen has adopted. Often referred to as ‘the religion of no religion’, it acknowledges no deity, it refuses to talk about any afterlife, and it tells us that our duty is simply to live in the moment and revere the workings of the natural world. The trouble is that even these challenging principles can themselves become ‘old ideas’. It is then that art has to step in and restore us to the eternal present, beyond any doctrine. Hence we need albums such as this.
Of course, there’s no need to know all about Zen to appreciate what Cohen is doing; as usual, Jesus puts in an appearance, helping us to get our bearings. In ‘Come Healing’, the songwriter draws on the New Testament to celebrate the possibility that we might ‘gather up the brokenness’. For ‘The splinters that you carry / The cross you left behind’ will make possible a ‘penitential hymn’ which allows ‘healing of the spirit’ and ‘healing of the limb’. But note that the healing hymn is a song of this very earth, not of a remote heaven: ‘O longing of the branches / To lift the little bud / O longing of the arteries / To purify the blood …’ Let me invoke here the title of an earlier song of Cohen’s: ‘Here It Is.’
Be reassured: this album isn’t at all forbidding. Listening to that rich, well-worn voice, perfectly matched by the delicately crafted music, is a pleasure in itself – whatever ‘ideas’ you happen to believe in.