It's strange that in a music scene increasingly dominated by younger and younger-seeming youth, a 77-year-old man should have debuted at No. 3 on Billboard's album chart in the same week that the 25-year-old Lana Del Rey debuted at No. 2.
But with Old Ideas (Columbia) Leonard Cohen did just that. And stranger yet-given his advanced years and sacramental obsessions-he deserved to, if "deserved to" means having the right to reap as his aesthetic reward the fruition of seeds he first planted 45 years ago.
Whether Old Ideas (a title representative of his dry sardonicism, as his ideas have always been old) turns out to be his last aural offering or not, it's clear that he thinks it is. The first song is called "Going Home," and it's about dying. Another is called "Lullaby," and it's about dying too.
Then there's the pervasive world-weariness of his gruff, old-man's-whisper of a voice. His was never a rich instrument, but now it's as arid as the desert, with ultimate, even eternal, concern its only oasis.
At this point it's as necessary to separate Cohen the artist from Cohen the man as it was, for instance, to separate Ingmar Bergman the man from Ingmar Bergman the filmmaker. Like Bergman, Cohen has fallen short of the glory of his religious ideals (Jewish in Cohen's case, Lutheran in Bergman's). Also like Bergman, Cohen has approached his work as if it and it alone might expiate his sins.
Although his "Hallelujah" has sadly outworn its welcome after being covered by everyone from John Cale and Bon Jovi to k.d. lang and the late Jeff Buckley, in its original 1984 version-before Cohen himself besmirched it with unnecessarily randy revisions-it expresses at least a fraction of the awe that saints surely feel in the presence of the holy.
And, believe it or not, on Old Ideas Cohen goes "Hallelujah" one better. And it's neither "Amen" nor "Come Healing," although both live up to their titles. It's "Show Me the Place," and it goes "Show me the place / where the Word became a man. / Show me the place where the suffering began."
Two recent tributes to Cohen's body of work deserve mention. One is called The Songs of Leonard Cohen Covered, a Mojo magazine exclusive featuring 10 artists recreating Cohen's 1967 debut album and five more recreating later Cohen classics, "Bird on a Wire" (by Marc Ribot & My Brightest Diamond) and "Famous Blue Raincoat" (Diagrams) among them.
There have been other Cohen tribute albums, and there will almost certainly be more. But the mostly obscure and young contributors to The Songs of Leonard Cohen Covered imbue their recordings with a sense of discovery bred of the humility they no doubt feel at arriving (through no fault of their own) late to the party. And what they've discovered is that, aside from some extra echo and instruments, Cohen's songs don't need to be "interpreted" so much as simply sung.
The other Cohen tribute, Like a Man, comes courtesy of Cohen's 39-year-old son Adam. It won't be out in the States until April, but it's been out in Canada and floating around the internet since last October. What makes it special is that, amid a career of his own during which he has assiduously avoided sounding anything like his father, he has finally embraced his birthright and run with it, eerily and affectionately recreating his father's early sound.
A more euphonious example of family values during this election year it will be hard to find.