It’s impossible not to love Leonard Cohen. And I don’t necessarily mean platonically, though he himself manifests Platonic ideals — or at least one (of which more later). An “old scholar, better-looking now than when [he] was young” (as he wrote in his brilliant but self-indulgent novel, Beautiful Losers), even when he’s touring merely to recover a lifetime of lost profits, this reviewer can testify that it’s impossible to believe that his disarming courtesy and gratitude are not completely sincere. A ladies’ man through and through, dead or otherwise. How then to mount (excuse the pun) any criticism of such a figure?
History, when not favoring the winners, is useful in justifying critique — but periodizing Cohen is difficult. While his work evolved from spare singer-songwriter guitar (Songs of Leonard Cohen) to rich, expansive orchestral backings (Recent Songs), the loosest division would be the era until the late 1980s and that from I’m Your Man (1988) onwards, in which the use of humor and of synthetic instrumentation began to fundamentally change Cohen’s oeuvre. On the most recent offerings, though, some of the themes of his contemporary work — (relatively) less oblique social commentary, greater explicitness — seem to have been wearing themselves thin. Old Ideas, albeit too-aptly named, is a far better piece than these.
But while there’s nothing here as egregious as Dear Heather’s “On That Day” (“On that day/ They wounded New York”), Cohen occasionally comes across as a pastiche of his former self (“Show Me The Place”). His obsession with sexual and romantic love, with the figure of the Beloved as mystical and otherwise, the Subject as abject worshipper or as the source of regretted but inevitable pain for another, is starting to seem less like a subject deep enough for endless elaboration and more like a somewhat juvenile repetition, a manifestation of the false paradigm of the intimate relationship as religion, as the only source of transcendence in a secular society. When he sings, “I’m tired of choosing desire” (“Crazy To Love You”), one wishes that he would take his own advice a little more seriously. And while his lyrics are often magnificent, they verge at times toward the clichés of ‘spirituality,’ of ‘self religion’ (“Come healing of the body/ Come healing of the mind”). Having said that, the opener, “Going Home” (echoing the well-known possible spiritual) is classically self-referential (“I love to speak with Leonard”), but at the same time, in speaking of the (his) Self, we see here an approach that, one imagines, emerges from Cohen’s engagement with Zen Buddhism: the deconstruction of the self as construct, concept, and as experience.
In discussing religion, we should note that, rather than Buddhist, most of Cohen’s themes are classics of monotheistic mysticism — bondage, love (in which the profane expresses the sacred), the elaboration of canonical quotations. We might be reminded of another Jewish mystic and philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas — also intent on reinterpreting his own religious heritage in ways both surprising and liberating. Cohen shares the problematics of Levinas’ interest in the female figure as a philosophical ideal (with which we return to Plato). But where another major theme of Levinas’ was the opening to infinitude, Cohen — thematically and musically — seems to be constantly in a state of Closing Time.
A redeeming (an appropriate term) feature here, though — and there are many — lies in Cohen’s gift for language, head and shoulders — as he is — above the vast majority of lyricists. (Ironically, given that this was the entrée to his artistic career, his lyrics are vastly superior to his written poetry.) But the pleasures of the Cohen-phile lie not only in his erudite, deeply intelligent words as such, but also his sense of humor. Like other artists stereotyped as aides-de-suicide, as masters of misery (Morrissey, in particular), his detractors have lighted on and caricatured a few popular early songs, missing the deep vein of comedy running through his art. In his later period, it is this in particular that has characterised his work, which nonetheless remains deeply serious, traumatic, and obscene.
For the most part, the pulsating, sleazy energy of songs like “Everybody Knows” or “The Future” is absent, while only the standout closer, “Different Sides,” approaches the dark vigour of a piece like “Boogie Street.” Rather, we are treated to a gentler but never saccharine mood, to lust observed and unresolved, making the piece feel like a classic example of Edward Saïd’s ‘late style’: “unsatisfied longing allied to cold detachment.” The characteristic interjection of choral female harmonies — and here we might think of the Greek tragedies of the Hebrew Bible and of Cohen’s time on Hydra — remains a joy. Cohen’s approach has always had something of (informal) repetitive minimalism to it, but the treatment of instruments — slide guitar, organ, banjo, trumpet — also conveys this sense of the richness of the lightest of touches — that is, of distance — and the humble confidence thereby displayed.
On the other hand, repetition can itself become repetitive, and where Cohen excels sonically in the manner outlined above, as on “Tell Me Again,” we are also subject to the repetition of a strategy of repetition, both lyrically and in its melodic resemblance to the classic “I’m Your Man.” But for all its flaws, Old Ideas remains Cohen’s strongest work for some time, in that his persona (or is it?) is openly dis/splayed in its full measure of dissatisfactoriness and seduction. ‘Leonard Cohen’ has no more than his own “permission/ To do my instant bidding/ That is to SAY what I have told him/ To repeat.”