Old Ideas: First impressions

Leonard Cohen's previous album (January 2012)
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Old Ideas: First impressions

Post by DBCohen » Sun Feb 05, 2012 2:28 pm

In this album LC continues with his two favorite themes: sexuality and spirituality. What is especially interesting here (although certainly not for the first time) is that these two themes are so intertwined that it is often difficult to tell them apart. LC has achieved the combined expression of spiritual and earthly love like few other poets (see my article on “The Window” in the Files). Expressions borrowed from the religious world are used in describing physical love, and vice versa. Apart from that there is also the familiar theme of the artist and his calling, and a strong emphasis (naturally) on old age and death, as well as suffering. A real analysis of the whole album would require greater effort and much space, but here I’d like to offer just some first impressions, based on a week’s worth of continued listening, and would love to hear other people’s opinions on all this.

I’ll say just a little about the music; there are many who are much more qualified than me in that respect, and mine is only a superficial impression. In most cases, the music by LC himself is more memorable than that supplied by others. Patrick Leonard wrote the music for four tracks; in “Going Home” and “Anyhow”, and to a somewhat lesser extent in “Show Me The Place”, it is but a sketch serving as background for LC’s recitation rather than full-fledged tunes; the music for “Come Healing”, suggesting a traditional hymn, is a little more substantial. The music for “Crazy To Love You” is by Anjani Thomas, and was sung by her on Blue Alert. On the five other tracks the music is very typical LC, in his unique way; “Amen” brings to mind “I’m Your Man”; “Darkness”, “Banjo”, “Lullaby” and “Different Sides” each have a personal character of their own.

In the following I will try to say a little about the lyrics and my own impression of each song, for what it’s worth.

“Going Home”: Written in his familiar self-depreciating, humorous way, it brings to mind “Tower Of Song” and other earlier songs and poems. It falls outside the spirituality/sexuality dualism and has to do with the artist’s calling and what he thinks he should achieve. He is looking both back on his career and forward to what he can expect in the future, for which “going home” serves as a mantra. Still, the word “vision” is crucial here, and it obviously has a religious flavor, and so does “sacrifice”. (I find this song very touching.)

“Amen”: Spirituality is the obvious external layer of the song, but not the exclusive one. “Listening” is very conspicuous here, and it is the first act in the encounter with the divine; it also brings to mind the first line of Book of Mercy, which has many other echoes in this album: “I stopped to listen, but he did not come”. Here he has: “We’re alone & I’m listening / I’m listening so hard that it hurts”. We hear it also through the repeated pleading “Tell me again”. There are many other religious allusions in the song; to name only a few: “vengeance belongs to the lord” (based on Psalms 94:1); “the blood of the lamb” (Revelations 7:14, 12:11); “the butcher” goes back to LC’s song by the same name and with similar imagery, although the earlier song seems to speak angrily against God, while here there is a feeling of reconciliation with the repeated “Amen”. Still, the final stanza is quite harsh; “the rest of the culture/ Has passed through the Eye of the Camp” brings to mind several expressions and images, including “the eye of the storm”, the words of Jesus about the eye of the needle (Matthew 19:24 etc.), and the death camps of the Holocaust. On the other hand, expressions such as “the angels are panting” sound like an admixture of holiness and sexuality, and the refrain which alternates between “Tell me that you want / love / need me again” is also ambiguous. There is much more that can be said about the particularly reach lyrics of this song (and the musical arrangement, with the participation of Sharon Robinson, is impressive, and would be even better with the live band).

“Show Me The Place”: This is one of the most ambiguous songs on the album: it is really difficult to tell whether the intention is more sexual or more spiritual. On the religious side: being God’s slave, bending the head in front of him and wishing to obey; then he is mixing once again Old and New Testament images: “roll away the stone” (following Genesis 29:10) and “the word became a man” (following John 1:1). On the other hand, it brings to mind the image of the submissive lover, and the rolling away of the stone from the well is taken from the great love story of Jacob and Rachel. The focus is on suffering that can be either physical or spiritual or both. (Finally I must confess that I like this song less than most other songs on the album; it feels like something is missing here, and this feeling is intensified by the fact that LC repeats the same lyrics twice, rather than offering new ones as he usually does. Jennifer Warnes supplies the background voices, and it is a pleasure to hear her with LC again; this is certainly the kind of song she could have covered).

“Darkness”: The cup can symbolize either life or death (wine/poison). The main theme seems to be the mortality of human existence, the realization that once we take our first breath we are already on our way to the grave. Although this song is obviously, well, “dark”, it also has a humorous side (LC is always at his best when he reminds himself and us not to take ourselves too seriously), and the duality I’ve been speaking about can be felt here too (another allusion to the cup is from the words of Jesus in Gethsemane, Matthew 26:39 etc.). I regard it as the pivot of the album and find it very touching. (The music is supplied by the tour’s band, and is so wonderful and lush, especially with Roscoe Beck’s bass and Neil Larsen’s keyboard; one wishes that the whole album was like that, although on the whole the arrangements on most of the songs are better than in the last couple of albums).

“Anyhow”: Here the upper layer is again love and relationship, but the religious language is very much there: “forgive”, “mercy”, “confess”, “guilty” etc., all words that come from the religious vocabulary but also used in the context of relationship. (It is touching, although it doesn’t have much of a tune).

“Crazy To Love You”: Love and old age are the main focus here, as well as “crazy”, which is a very charged word, including in LC’s former songs (“And you know that she’s half crazy”; “And I’m crazy for love”; “Let’s do something crazy / something absolutely wrong” etc.). “Her braids and her blouse all undone” brings to mind “your shirt is all undone” in “Master Song”. On the religious language side there are expression such as “been saved” and “gates of commitment”. (LC’s guitar playing here is very evocative, and as with the lyrics, it brings to mind his earliest records. He increased the tempo a little compared with Anjani’s rendering; I wish he’d recorded a few more songs from her album).

“Come Healing”: The most hymn-like song on the album, infused with religious imagery, again, both Jewish and Christian: “the cross”, “gates of mercy”, “grace”, “the Name”, “the Altar” etc. The duality is represented with the healing of the various couples: body/mind, spirit/limb, reason/heart, Altar/Name (again, see “The Window” and Book of Mercy). (It has a certain hypnotic effect, perhaps also due the singing by Dana Glover, who does a very good job on other songs as well).

“Banjo”: It “means a lot to me”, he says, so it must be more than a joke. It made me think of a dream, or a surrealistic painting. It also has a dark side with the “grave” and the fear of being harmed. (Perhaps it’s only me, but something in the arrangement reminded me a little of New Orleans jazz).

“Lullaby”: This could be an actual lullaby for his grandchildren, but of course it’s not your regular lullaby, coming from LC. The cat and mouse and other images are typical of children’s songs, but even here the religious language can be found, with “talking in tongues” (Acts 2:4). The long night also has to do with spirituality, and is a common image of LC’s. (It is a very pleasing song, also thanks to the arrangement).

“Different Sides”: Like several other songs, here too the overt layer is of relationship with a woman, and even in a quite humorous way. Still “laws to obey” also bring to mind religion. The song is also reminiscent of several other LC songs, but enough is enough and I’ll leave it for another time. (I like both the tune and the arrangement; it is a fitting way to end this album, which is both dark and light in LC’s uniquely exciting way).

I don’t wish to rate this album compared with the rest, save only to say that compared with the previous album Dear Heather this seems more solid (although that album certainly has its merits). LC is still able to surprise and delight us; his fountain of creativity is still flowing, bringing forth distinctive images and expressions which are uniquely his. For those of us who have been following his work for several decades, the fact that he is still around and still gives us those precious gifts, is uplifting beyond words.
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Re: Old Ideas: First impressions

Post by bridger15 » Sun Feb 05, 2012 6:31 pm

Thank you so much, Doron. This is outstanding! I am breathless.

I read it twice over on the screen. Then decided I have to print it to read again to better absorb your insights.

2009-San Diego|Los Ang|Nashville|St Louis|Kansas City|LVegas|San Jose
2012-Austinx2|Denver|Los Ang|Seattle|Portland

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Re: Old Ideas: First impressions

Post by 264811403188 » Sun Feb 05, 2012 7:28 pm

Thank you so much, Doron. This review is very well written and of much use to me; I'm still waiting for my cd and I'm going to print this to read while listening to the songs, hopefully in the new week.

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Re: Old Ideas: First impressions

Post by annmarie » Mon Feb 06, 2012 1:37 am

Great review Doron, thank you.
I too feel there's a big emphasis on old age, mortality, especially the Darkness and also running through Going Home :( :(
Could be that I'm in a rather dark mood tonight!
Anne :(
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Re: Old Ideas: First impressions

Post by John Etherington » Mon Feb 06, 2012 3:44 am

Excellent, Doron! It's good to see that someone has taken the trouble to listen to the album thoroughly and process the lyrics, before rushing in to review them. I started an "early thoughts" piece on the album myself earlier this weekend, but haven't got round to completing it, yet. I'll save most of my thoughts for that, if I finish it. However, I'm in agreement with almost everything you say here -particularly in your assessment of "Amen". Note that the duality theme is picked up again in "Different Sides" - "Though it all may be one in the higher eye/Down here where we live it is two". I think we'll find that the last song on the album has much more to offer than it may seem to do, on the early listens.

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Re: Old Ideas: First impressions

Post by DBCohen » Mon Feb 06, 2012 6:33 am

Thank you all very much for your kind remarks.

John, I’m really looking forward to reading your thoughts on the album.
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Re: Old Ideas: First impressions

Post by lizzytysh » Mon Feb 06, 2012 7:01 am

Thank you oh so much for this, Doron. Your final paragraph could not be overstated and filled me with warmth.
"Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."
~ Oscar Wilde
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Re: Old Ideas: First impressions

Post by rike » Mon Feb 06, 2012 7:59 pm

Thank you for your thoughtful review! I was moved by your perceptive last sentence:
DBCohen wrote: For those of us who have been following his work for several decades, the fact that he is still around and still gives us those precious gifts, is uplifting beyond words.
I shall keep it next to what an Austrian reviewer wrote after Mr. Cohen's concert in Graz in 2010 (Kleine Zeitung): "... a beloved companion who has been part of the soundtrack of life for decades."

Old Ideas continues the role LC has been playing for so many of us for so long. "Precious gifts," as you wrote!
"...A manual for living with defeat..."
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Re: Old Ideas: First impressions

Post by Squidgy » Mon Feb 06, 2012 10:41 pm

Doron, this is one of the more brilliant and insightful literary analyses ever posted here, IMO. How could it be otherwise? I remember meeting you in Austin before the show, and you were reading, if I remember correctly, a book by Luis Bunuel. Your comments here are of the sort posted by many brainy folk on the old LC newsgroup.
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Re: Old Ideas: First impressions

Post by DBCohen » Tue Feb 07, 2012 2:08 am

Thanks, rike.

Squidgy, thanks, but you must have confused me with somebody else; I’ve never been to Austin, I’m afraid, nor can I remember reading a book about Bunuel, although I admire his films (could it have been Truffaut’s book about Hitchcock? 8) )
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Re: Old Ideas: First impressions

Post by DBCohen » Tue Feb 07, 2012 5:33 am

John wrote:
Note that the duality theme is picked up again in "Different Sides" - "Though it all may be one in the higher eye/Down here where we live it is two". I think we'll find that the last song on the album has much more to offer than it may seem to do, on the early listens.
I absolutely agree with you. One of the reasons I didn’t write more about this song was that I wasn’t quite sure of my interpretation; I wanted to say that I can hear in it a dialogue between Judaism and Christianity, but I realized it will be hard to demonstrate this clearly from the lyrics, and believed some people might think me crazy. Anyhow, I’m still working on it.

I also realized another reason for why I don’t like “Show Me The Place” very much, and that’s because the music in the chorus sounds too much like contemporary church music, especially with that #@$% organ in the background. LC’s musical roots are very different, and he created his own unique style based on those; this kind of music is really most untypical to his work. I really wish he hadn’t collaborated with Patrick Leonard, whose contribution to this album is its weakest side.
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