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.