Cohen advances his craft with “Old Ideas”

By Adam Colorado

Courtesy of MCT

Writing lyrics is an art form few musicians master over the course of their careers. Songwriters like Bob Dylan and John Lennon instantly pop into peoples’ minds when thinking of great lyricists, but there is one bard in particular who often is overlooked in the greater lyricists’ list.

Almost a month ago, Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen released his newest album, titled “Old Ideas,” which highlights his ongoing strengths as a talented lyricist and musician.

For over 40 years, Cohen has written lyrics addressing religion, human identity and sexuality and many other motifs. Listeners have been drawn to the way Cohen’s lyrics complement the music he chooses to match them with, which always seem to find perfect rhythm with one another.

Cohen is famous to many people of this generation for his song “Hallelujah,” made famous again after covers by Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Imogen Heap and a slew of other artists. However, “Hallelujah” is only a sample of what Cohen has written during his time on the music stage; he’s written many songs with lyrics just as poetic.

That song is remembered not only for biblical allusions, but for the accompanying vocals sung in a gospel-like fashion, which is seen as the trademark of a Cohen song. A song that is reminiscent of this style on “Old Ideas” is “Show Me the Place,” which features somber themes and is probably the strongest track on the album.

The song’s lyrics touch upon slavery and despair, and Cohen’s vocal performance gives the impression that he is in a situation from which he longs to be released. It is ambiguous whether the bondage is based in reality or is a construct in his mind. And to add a deeper emotional angle to the song, a violin plays slowly throughout the track.

A similar technique is also employed on “Amen,”  which conveys a struggle with an internal problem which can only be solved through spiritual deliverance. Cohen’s music helps transmit the message and theme behind the lyrics. And there is undoubtedly influence from Cohen’s personal religious beliefs as well; he is known for reciting Hebrew prayers at his concerts.

Another strong track is “Crazy to Love You,” which touches on identity and dealing with a crisis of character while in a relationship. The track has exceptionally powerful lyrics which almost express a feeling of anger, but Cohen’s calm voice is a reminder he is the one that is regretful for allowing the worst parts of his character to become visible. The lines in the song, “Had to let everything fall/Had to be people I hated,” speak about identity and highlight how having to completely change oneself to be in a relationship is not worth it.

This is not to say that Cohen is a cynic about love and lovers. One piece which has more upbeat writing is “Lullaby,” which, in addition, utilizes a harmonica, making the song appropriately titled. Cohen writes from the perspective of a man fighting against the odds to make sure his relationship lasts, crying, “Through the tears of lies/I will come to you.” It’s a decidedly more hopeful mood than “Crazy to Love You.”

It is startling how much of an impact that Cohen’s lyrics can have when someone reads them and tries to decipher their meaning. His lyrics can make people think, in addition to providing a form of entertainment that people look for in music. Anyone who listens to this album could find a song with lyrics that resonate with them. The songs on “Old Ideas” are very personal, and while the overall somber mood may shy people away, the power of the lyrics can grab anyone’s attention.

Adam Colorado can be reached at [email protected].