At least I think they do. There’s a German word, spechgesang, which, (very) loosely translated, refers to a spoken word type of singing. It’s a way for people without a great voice to tell a story in a song (the most basic example would be Richard Burton in the original Broadway run of “Camelot“). And on Leonard Cohen’s new album he presents his work in a way that insists that you listen to what he has to say.
Leonard Cohen, of course, is a legend. Cohen made his mark as a poet in his native Canada and even on his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967 he didn’t have much of a singing voice. As the years have gone by he has recited more than sung his lyrics.
Old Ideas is Cohen’s first new album of new material since 2004’s Dear Heather. He spent a couple of years at a Buddhist retreat but his then-trusted manager mis-managed millions of dollars of Cohen’s money. Suddenly, with nothing left for his retirement, Cohen made the decision to go back on the road in 2008.
If you think that this would have turned a dark poet into a bitter old man, well you didn’t see him during his around-the-world concert tour or the DVD of his initial comeback concert in London. A more humble, grateful man you may never see. In his (now) trademark fedora, which he often took off to bow to the crowd, Cohen seemed to be as happy to see the audience as they were happy to see him
But there isn’t a lot of joy on Old Ideas. I think the title of the song “Darkness” says a lot about the tone of the album: “I used to love the rainbow … I loved the early morning … But I caught the darkness baby/And I got it worse than you.” There’s also the dark shuffle of “Amen” and the rumble of his voice on “Show Me The Place” in which he approaches the gravely sounds of Tom Waits. The love-less, love-starved narrator of “Anyhow” says “I know you have to hate me /But could you hate me less” and relates his tale to a jazzy, late-night arrangement not unlike one for the Fred Astaire/Frank Sinatra standard “One For My Baby.”
There is also religion and of course — because it’s Leonard Cohen — there is sex. In “Show Me The Place” he writes “Show me the place/Help me roll away the stone” and “Show me the place/Where the Word became a man.” There’s a church-like organ on “Come Healing” as well as hymn-like backing vocals from Sharon Robinson — a long-time collaborator with Cohen — and the Webb Sisters, all of whom were musicians on the world tour.
My favorite song on the album is “Different Sides.“ And like “Hallelujah” it‘s a perfect blend of religion and sex — — and don’t let anyone tell you that “Hallelujah” is not about sex. Religion comes through with the lines “I to my side call the meek and the mild/You to your side call the Word” and the sex is there with “But frankly I don’t like your tone/You want to change the way I make love/I want to leave it alone.”
But this album isn’t a downer. It’s smart, literate, and well played. Old Ideas is another realistic statement from a poet approaching his 80th year and who hasn’t stopped thinking about life, love, religion, and sex.
Henry Lipput is a writer living in the Pittsburgh, PA, area. He has written fundraising scripts and letters, proposals, and technical manuals and reports for a telefundraising company, defense contractors, and engineering companies. He has also written freelance articles on specialty advertising, health care, small businesses, and general interest topics for both national and local publications.
Henry wrote the book for a one-act musical, “Paradise Misplaced,” which was produced Off-Off-Off Broadway and his play “The Outside Agitator” was given stage readings in Philadelphia. He is currently working on a new play inspired by Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” and has been desperately seeking a composer/lyricist to collaborate on a new musical.
You can send questions, comments, or concerns to Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Hlipput.