TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who is now in his late '70s released a new album today called "Old Ideas." Rock critic Ken Tucker says this collection of Cohen songs works as pop music and as prayers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "AMEN")
LEONARD COHEN: Tell me again when I've been to the river that I've taken the edge off my thirst. Tell me again we're alone and I'm listening. Listening so hard that it hurts. Tell me again when I'm clean and I'm sober. Tell me again when I've seen through the horror. Tell me again, tell me over and over. Tell me that you want me then. Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.
KEN TUCKER: At this point in his life, Leonard Cohen sings in a voice so deep and bottomless, he may as well be singing from underneath the earth. But that doesn't mean it's faint, or murky or dead. Indeed, Cohen is somehow capable of making a cracked baritone that enunciates meticulous lyrics sound searching, restless and jaunty. This has long been Cohen's saving grace. His dry humor juices up his more portentous pronouncements.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ANYHOW")
COHEN: You know it really is a pity the way you treat me now. I know you can't forgive me but forgive me anyhow. The ending, not so ugly. I even heard you say you never, ever loved me but could you love me anyway? I dreamed about you, baby. You were wearing half your dress.
I know you have to hate me but could you hate me less? I've used up all my chances and you'll never take me back, but there ain't no harm in asking could you cut me one more slack? I'm naked and I'm filthy...
TUCKER: I said something about saving grace before, and on "Old Ideas," the spiritual meaning of that phrase resonates frequently. Cohen spends time here asking forgiveness of old lovers and of God, careful to make it unclear which is more important to him. Cohen asks a woman, I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less? as female voices rise up, as if in support of the old man's position.
Perhaps he hired them, one is left to imagine, to provide support for his wooing of the woman he's imploring. Have mercy on me, baby, he concludes. The instrumentation and genres on "Old Ideas" vary. Some songs are smooth pop ballads that slide along keyboard riffs; others are folkier, with acoustic guitar prominent. A good example of Cohen's kind of folk music is "Crazy to Love You."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CRAZY TO LOVE YOU")
COHEN: I had to go crazy to love you. I had to go down to the pit. I had to do time in the tower, begging like crazy to quit. I had to go crazy to love you. You who were never the one. Whom I chased through the souvenir heartache, her braids and her blouse all undone. Sometimes I'd head for the highway. I'm old and the mirrors don't lie. But crazy has places to hide in that are deeper than any goodbye.
TUCKER: The killer couplet there is: Crazy has places to hide in that are deeper than any goodbye. That Cohen is as much in touch with his craziness and his carnal urges as he is with his always-perilous spiritual state gives "Old Ideas" its pleasing, sometimes poignant tension.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "COME HEALING")
COHEN: Behold the gates of mercy in arbitrary space and none of us deserving the cruelty or the grace.
COHEN: Oh, solitude of longing where love has been confined, come healing of the body, come healing of the mind. Oh, see the darkness yielding that tore the light apart. Come healing of the reason, come healing of the heart.
TUCKER: That song talks about a healing of the spirit and the body, perhaps in preparation for a darkness that becomes clear in another song about death titled "Darkness." But there's not a trace of morbidity or self-pity or regret on one second of this entire album. Leonard Cohen is making music vital to his spirit, confident that a song transmits its essential nature directly to any listener receptive to his message. In this sense, "Old Ideas" is an inspirational album from a very lively old coot.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. The reviewed Leonard Cohen's new album "Old Ideas."