Like fellow celebrated songwriters Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen has always had a simple and poignant way of addressing spiritual themes in his music. His most famous song, “Hallelujah”, manages to take the life of King David and make it sound like he’s singing about his own. His new album, Old Ideas, continues with a lot of those personally narrated and spiritually dense themes, but they’ve all been filtered through Cohen’s 77 years of age.
Cohen’s voice has been worn down to a scratchy whisper at points, and as with Johnny Cash’s famous posthumous albums, hearing his raw-leather voice at this age feels almost transcendent to a point. It’s hard not to love Cohen’s deliveries, whether he’s singing two octaves lower than most basses or sometimes falling into a pitchless spoken word. Although I didn’t love all of the stylistic and instrumental choices, Cohen’s somber spirituality still cuts through the old-school instrumentation and folk songwriting. In fact, I couldn’t help but feel like the name Old Ideas was about a lot more than his age.
Unsurprisingly, issues of faith, love, relationship, and identity don’t seem to get any easier with age. In “Going Home”, Cohen sings about finding comfort in a home and even about the comfort of having a home beyond the grave: “Going home, without my burden/Going home, behind the curtain/Going home, without the costume/That I wore”. As a person in the “twentysomething” age group, I tend to focus on the fact that the kingdom of God is at hand and that we’ve got a lot of work to do in our lives. But whenever I hear a voice like Cohen’s, I’m reminded of how important it is to remember Jesus’ promise to the thief hanging on the cross next to Him: “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.”
Old Ideas lacks the production gloss and attention to detail that most modern albums have, yet it’s simplicity and focus on songwriting feels refreshing. The album is a reminder that, in the midst of our neophiliac culture, sometimes it’s important to stop and listen to some old ideas for a change — especially from people who’ve been through a thing or two in their lives.