You could explain it by saying the themes of these tunes are indeed old – or, at least, old hat – to Cohen. He’s been singing about love and death for decades, so why shift gears now? Maybe the perspective could be viewed as being purely personal. Cohen is now 77, so perhaps these are products of age. Or the album might simply be examining the kinds of fleeting mortality and earthy desire that have fascinated writers of all mediums for centuries.
There is a bit of all three in Old Ideas. They bubble to the surface in slow, stoic but very deliberate waves during the album-opening Going Home. The tune has God literally calling Cohen’s name before calling him names. “He’s a sportsman and a shepherd, he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit,” mumbles the Almighty. And sure enough, Cohen’s time is up. His journey is outlined in a whispery shuffle with vocals that sound as if the singer is confiding in us a dirty secret rather than his destiny. The song is sly, chilling and more than a little witty. But then those are pretty old ideas for Cohen’s music, too.
There is also a hefty level of serenity about these songs. Lullaby, for instance, enters like a hymn with a hum of keyboards, a light but cheesy percussive shuffle and the serenade of guitar and plaintive harmonica that set the stage for a kind of cosmic campfire. Then group vocals that fall just shy of doo-wop support Cohen’s hushed, half-spoken bullfrog singing. He may seem like a crooner from the edge of the Twilight Zone. But the song is no joke. It’s Cohen’s prayer for peace, a slice of nocturnal calm for nights of solitude and impenetrable darkness.
As with Cohen’s best records of the past two decades (including I’m Your Man and The Future), Old Ideas luxuriates in sleek, quiet, sage-like narration and tempos best described as glacial. Yet for all of the spiritual overtones, Cohen is still a man of the earth. He grumbles at the beginning of the jazzy glow from Anyhow like some ancient bluesman seeking forgiveness (“I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less?”) while Banjo serves as a folkly metaphor wrapped in a very worldly restlessness (“I’m a broken banjo bopping on the dark infested sea”)
Lost at sea? Lost in the clouds? Old Ideas is both, at times. It seeks to knock at the door of the hereafter but still finds flickers of light, hope and heart in the here and now.