Unleashing the Power of Age: Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

May is Older Americans Month, and this year we’re celebrating the official theme “Unleash the Power of Age” with a series of posts recognizing people who have done some amazing creative work in their later years.

Leonard Cohen is a poet and a songwriter who has been creating art since publishing his first volume of poetry in 1956. At the age of 78, Leonard Cohen’s career has already spanned almost six decades, and he is still having an impact on musicians and poets today.

Of course, some of Cohen’s most famous songs – such as “Hallelujah,” “I’m Your Man,” and “Bird on a Wire” – continue to impact younger artists, but what is even more remarkable is that Cohen is still producing music just as thought-provoking and powerful as the songs that made him famous decades ago. In this post, I’ll focus on Cohen’s most recent album, Old Ideas, released in January 2012.

Before I get into my impressions of Old Ideas, I do want to say that I haven’t really dug terribly deep into Leonard Cohen’s earlier albums. This album is my starting place for appreciating Cohen’s music. (It seems I often work backwards through artists’ work. See my previous posts on Glen Campbell and Loudon Wainwright for evidence of that.)

That being said, in this album, Cohen’s deep, scratchy, and barely-melodic voice sets the solemn, meditative tone, especially when contrasted with the angelic voices of back-up singers. The combination of voices is at the forefront of the music, with rather spare and simple accompaniment providing support while allowing the lyrics to ring through.

As for the lyrics, themes of mortality, memories of relationships past, and a wish for closure or reconciliation run through the entire album, defining the mood as solemn and reflective for the most part. Even the more upbeat tracks – “The Darkness” and “Banjo” come to mind – still feel like they’re in shadow.

Cohen also uses a lot of religious language (e.g. “the blood of the lamb” in “Amen” and “come healing of the spirit” in “Come Healing,”), which, combined with the angelic backup singers, makes some of these songs sound almost like a hymn. Considering that Cohen has always identified as a Jew, even after spending several years in a monastery and being ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk, these songs bring up spiritual and existential issues without speaking directly to particular religious traditions. People from many faith backgrounds may find truth in these songs.

Does all of this seriousness and darkness add up to an album worth avoiding? I don’t think so. While I won’t be adding any of these tracks to my Feel Good Playlist anytime soon, I do appreciate the emotional heft of these songs, and I think that they could provide a solid container for some of the more difficult feelings and ideas we have to contend with as humans, such as the notion of death and endings. Cohen’s album is solemn, but not depressing. It’s about endings and death, but it doesn’t feel like a funeral. Instead, this album portrays another side of aging and later life than the humorous defiance of Loudon Wainwright’s “Older Than My Old Man Now” and the courage in the face of hardship of Glen Campbell’s “Ghost on the Canvas.” Each of these perspectives has its own value and beauty to offer our world.

Above all, I admire Leonard Cohen’s continued creative work over a long career. May he continue creating works of beauty for years to come.

Are you familiar with Leonard Cohen’s work? Have you heard his latest album? Please leave your thoughts and comments below.

Advertisements

30 thoughts on “Unleashing the Power of Age: Leonard Cohen

  1. Helen Ketcham (@HelenOE) says:

    I don’t know how you’re defining “feel good” music for your playlist but “Goin’ Home” certainly makes me feel good (and it’s funny, too), as do “Come Healing” and the lovely “Lullabye.” I really love this album.

    • soundscapemusictherapy says:

      I’m glad you love this album! “Lullaby” and “Come Healing” are two of my favorites on this album, too. I usually go with a much lighter aesthetic on my “Feel Good” playlist, but that’s just my preference. Something like this I choose when I want something more complex – “meatier.” We all have different preferences, of course!

    • soundscapemusictherapy says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Martin! Well, guess what – Leonard Cohen WROTE “Hallelujah” and Jeff Buckley made the most famous cover version. I didn’t know that for a long time, either. This book about the history of the song is on my reading list: The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” (2012) by Alan Light.

      • Elizabeth Bacon-Smith says:

        Thank you for making that clarification, Rachelle, as I was about to do it 🙂 . No one’s cover will ever surpass Leonard’s original.

  2. Martin McCarthy says:

    Yes it is.
    Susan Boyle also does a very good version which IMO is better than Leonard Cohen.

  3. Helen Ketcham (@HelenOE) says:

    Oh, and talk about unleashing the power of age… you didn’t mention that Mr. Cohen has been touring internationally for most of the last five years, selling out theatres and arenas wherever he went. He’s opening the Montreux Jazz Festival in France in June. His shows last at least three hours, sometimes closer to four with the encores. Then he SKIPS offstage.

  4. Martin McCarthy says:

    Dont you think that f Lennard Cohen took singing lessons them he would be more popular?
    Not many of my Facebook friends have heard of him

    • soundscapemusictherapy says:

      That’s an interesting thought, Martin. Honestly, I don’t think Leonard Cohen would sound like Leonard Cohen if he tried to change his singing voice. That rough, gravelly voice is part of his aesthetic, and I think there is a lot to be appreciated just in the uniqueness of his sound.

  5. Helen Ketcham (@HelenOE) says:

    I wouldn’t dare to say whether Leonard Cohen should or should not take singing lessons, but I do know that Paul Simon did exactly that, as he was approaching 70. He felt that his songwriting was being restricted by his narrowing vocal range, so he took voice coaching to regain some of those notes. He’s very disciplined about maintaining his voice; he stopped smoking and has eliminated or restricted alcohol and dairy products. And his voice is holding up very well. He still sounds like Paul Simon though, he hasn’t changed his singing style. Leonard Cohen stopped smoking about ten years ago, and to my ears at least he sounds a lot better now than he did in some of the videos I’ve seen from 1993, right before he went to live on Mt. Baldy.

  6. Richard Morgan says:

    Well, a great post. Just to say that I’ve followed Leonard Cohen’s work since 1971 – yes, 1971! – and I would suggest that almost all his albums are worth exploring. There are at least 8 or 10 with the quality of the lovely new “Old Ideas”, and only one or two lesser efforts. My suggestions for further exploration: “Songs of Leonard Cohen”, “New Skin for the Old Ceremony”, “Recent Songs”, “I’m Your Man”, “Ten New Songs”.

    Happy Listening!! Richard

      • Richard Morgan says:

        You are welcome. I was thinking more about this, and the “healing” properties of Leonard’s work. There is the aspect of “darkness”, which is most apparent in stark collections like “Songs of Love and Hate”. But there is also the peaceful, calm heart of some of Leonard’s music. I’m thinking of “Ten New Songs” in particular. My late father, in his mid-80s, became a strong LC fan (with a little help from his son .. smiles!). And it was through the album “Ten New Songs”, and its stately, semi-spiritual music, that he was soothed in his final months and years ….

      • soundscapemusictherapy says:

        That’s an interesting story about your father, Richard. As a music therapist in hospice, I see spiritual issues come up time and time again near the end of life. Music can be a powerful catalyst for spiritual exploration and/or can be a firm container to hold all the emotions that may come up for folks in a difficult time of life. I can definitely see how some of Leonard Cohen’s songs could help in that way. (Or, they could cause distress for some. We don’t really have universal responses to music.)

  7. ron says:

    most of my friends and family still think Leonard is a Rabbi on Long Island and the more enlightened ones know he is a Rabbi in Manalapan , New Jersey. It is very maddening especially since I have told them over and over but hey, that’s no way to treat a Leonerd fan:-)

  8. Martin McCarthy says:

    I am not sure that the fact that Mr Cohen is a Jew has anything to do with his music.
    Does anyone quiz Beyonce or Bob Dylan or Paul Mc Cartney about their religion?

  9. Martin McCarthy says:

    Oh Im not sure about that link.
    Its all about Jews, its not important. Hallelujah is a great tune. Nothing to do with Jews or religion.

    • Richard Morgan says:

      With respect, because I understand the general point you are making very clearly: I do find widespread elements of Leonard’s Jewish heritage in many of his songs. I think it’s a significant source of his lyrical and musical art. There are some Cohen songs to point to as obviously drawn on Jewish themes and sources – Story of Isaac, Who by Fire, By the Rivers Dark, The Future, Anthem, and at least parts of Hallelujah – but I agree also that his work is much broader than this, and often not concerned with religion or Judaism at all. There’s plenty of eroticism there too, for example. And just plain lyrical and tuneful beauty. So .. let’s enjoy …!

  10. p toni says:

    oh my. what a feeling of sadness i felt from reading this article. why not familiarize yourself with the body of work BEFORE writing about the artist and his music.

    • soundscapemusictherapy says:

      That was a conscious choice on my part, actually. We rarely encounter music from the beginning to end of an artist’s body of work, but that doesn’t mean a person’s experience of the music is any less meaningful.

      As a music therapist, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that they MUST be an expert to find meaning in music, although learning a little about a songwriter’s story can add to the experience.

      P.S. Learning about the artist can also detract from a song’s meaning for an individual. That’s okay, too.

      Thanks for stopping by!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s