Old Ideas‘s prevailing theme of exhaustion, mixed with hints of Leonard Cohen’s Buddhist faith to provide a feeling of patient acquiescence to the demands of death and aging, makes for an album that’s both blithely realistic and just plain dreary. It has a lot of the telltale Cohen markings, with beautifully poetic tangents taking the place of straightforward lyrics and muttery talking in place of actual singing, but the material is so meandering and diffident that the actual content becomes a mystery, whether the lethargy on display is a consequence of form or a sign of authorial dejection.
There’s definitely the sense of Cohen facing a void and welcoming its emptiness, in the same way he’s taken on very dark subject matter over the last 40-odd years, resulting in songs whose otherwise oppressive blackness is leavened by smirking irony. It might be a stretch, but it’s tempting to equate his seeming acceptance of death with his resignation toward returning to the studio, years after he’d otherwise retired, driven back to touring and creation after his manager filched $5 million from the singer-songwriter’s retirement fund. The album’s title might seem like a hint, but whatever the explanation behind it, Old Ideas remains lyrically strong but otherwise disappointing.
This is mostly because Cohen sounds so resigned, which is bad, since lukewarm emotion isn’t great for music, and it’s certainly not great for Cohen, whose best work has always been either nasty, wistful, or depressed—in short, motivated by exclusively powerful emotions. The songs here are wishy washy and dull in comparison. “Darkness,” with its minor-chord guitar-picking and jazzy piano, is pure schlock—not the odd, knowing variety, which made an old track like “Jazz Police” into such a boffo masterpiece, but schlock of a far more ordinary variety.
The music matches this sentiment throughout, crawling along in uninspired dirges which drag down the words, rather than elevating them. There are exceptions, of course, usually courtesy of songs where the backing remains minimal and locks up with the tone of the lyrics. “Show Me the Place” takes Cohen’s increasingly gravelly rasp in a slightly more dynamic direction, sounding like Tom Waits if he suddenly found religion. “Different Sides” is strangely springy and propulsive, with a pulsing electric organ and the kind of sly nastiness that’s absent from too many of the other songs.
By this point, it’s become completely evident that Cohen shouldn’t be allowed into the studio with female backing, a crutch he’s insistently reliant on, and which invariably adds a cloying element to his otherwise professional demeanor. The voices that accompany him here are by turns syrupy and overwrought, and they work less to melt the icy tenor of the singer’s voice than to soften the tracks into complete mush. It’s another external factor menacing Cohen’s last weapon—his words—and one of the many things that ultimately renders Old Ideas ineffective.