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Album review: Leonard Cohen, 'Old Ideas'

Greg Kot

3:31 PM EST, January 24, 2012

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3.5 stars (out of 4)

It doesn’t seem possible, but Leonard Cohen’s voice sounds even deeper, darker, more foreboding than ever on his 12th studio album in 44 years, “Old Ideas” (Columbia). Cohen is 77, and he doesn’t really bother to sing anymore. Instead, he divulges his inner-most hang-ups and bleakest jokes with the barely-above-a-whisper deliberation and gravitas of an undertaker or a prison warden.

His measured, amelodic cadences may leave nonbelievers wondering why this guy creates such a fuss among fans and songwriting connoisseurs. But the approach suits songs of moral complexity, a pile-up of poignant images and punch lines that conflate mortality, romance, tragedy and comedy.

As a lyricist, Cohen has few peers, a poet whose songs have been championed by everyone from director Robert Altman to Kurt Cobain. But for the last two decades his albums have sagged beneath the cheese applied by gratuitous synthesizers and keyboards. Intensive recent touring has served him well, however, and the singer has cleared out some of the production clutter on “Old Ideas.” The sparer, more spacious arrangements allow Cohen to inject his deadpan baritone with a subtle theatricality. There’s a smile in his voice as he mocks himself in “Going Home,” a hymn-like solemnity in “Show Me the Place,” a bleak bluesy twistedness in “Darkness.” “I said, ‘Is this contagious?’/ You said, ‘Just drink it up,’ ” he mutters.

The latter song is built on little more than Cohen’s voice and an acoustic guitar, and each musical touch is carefully considered and absolutely appropriate as the arrangements subtly shuffle genres. A rickety banjo gives way to wan trumpet in “Amen,” backing singers sigh and swoon in the sly saloon ballad “Anyhow,” a campfire harmonica transports “Lullaby” into one of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns.

Though Cohen’s age and subject matter might suggest otherwise, “Old Ideas” is not another of the dreaded winter-of-my-years albums that have become a cottage industry in music in recent decades. The notion of staring into the abyss with a certain age-appropriate steeliness and poignance helped Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan revive their careers on pivotal ‘90s albums. But since then, albums about the “dying of the light” by late-period icons have become a cliché. Not so with Cohen, who’s still feisty after all these years, his entanglements with love and aging documented with wicked wit and an attitude that is anything but sentimental.

greg@gregkot.com