Sony, Rs 499
For those still engaged in that old debate about whether a great song is made by words riding the music or the music straddling the words, Leonard Cohen has always provided a straightforward answer at least for his own songs: the words are paramount, coming alive when bathed in the light of his trademark soft, wet music. Cohen closes the old debate yet again in Old Ideas, his new album and, to my ears, his finest since his 1984 record, Various Positions.
Cohen starts the proceedings with 'Going home', which he wrote as a poem in The New Yorker magazine. In its avatar as a song, it turns into an almost gospel-infused sigh about living with a character called Leonard Cohen: "I love to speak with Leonard/ He's a sportsman and a shepherd/ He's a lazy bastard/ Living in a suit./ But he does say what I tell him/ Even though it isn't welcome/ He will never have the freedom/ To refuse." The gravelly voice that delivers this story of the two Cohens is that of a tired giant sitting in a children's park where the kids have grown up. Which is when I look at the album cover and let out a smile as he proceeds to tell me how "I want to make it certain/ that he doesn't have a burden/ that he doesn't need a vision./ That he only has permission/ to do my instant bidding..."
'Show me the place' has Cohen create sheer beauty out of voice, words and music that resembles particulate matter. "Show me the place/ where you want your slave to go/ Show me the place/ I've forgotten, I don't know/ Show me the place/ where my head is bent and low/ Show me the place/ where you want your slave to go... Show me the place/ where the word became a man/ Show me the place/ where the suffering began," he sings with a direct access to Nature and the Heart.
He puts on a devilish air in 'Darkness', a snappety number that has the electric keyboard playing impish rogue. 'Crazy to love you' talks-sings us through a guitar-plucked story of heartbreak where you lose your soul and mind and you win the girl. "I had to go crazy to love you/ had to let everything fall/ had to be people I hated/ had to be no one at all," the man sings out the words as if they formed in his mouth.
Old Ideas stuns and makes one sit down because of its quiet, precise majesty that a late Dylan would have robbed to borrow. And I say this is without ever being a Leonard Cohen fan.
For the good times
The Little Willies
EMI, Rs 395
Think Nashville with a jazzy, smoky voice that sounds like that of Norah Jones. That sounds pretty good, especially considering that it is Norah Jones who's singing but instead of sounding like superlative country music — or white boy blues — this album of covers ends up sounding mostly like saloon music going on while better things are happening at the bar. We hear Norah twang-hush her way through Ralph Stanley's 'I worship you' and 'Remember me'. Folks into country music could try slapping their thighs with the jippity-jip of Cal Martin's 'Diesek smoke, dangerous curves'. But it ends up sounding too cartoony, ready to be utilised in a better way in a Quentin Tarantino movie soundtrack.
More successful is the heart-strings-tugging cover of 'Lovesick blues' and the rather good rendition of Willie Nelson's 'Permanently lonely' where Richard Julian on vocals sounds quite the Billy Joel with a Stetson. Johnny Cash's 'Wide open road' works far less well though, turning the original's slick snarl of "You can stick around/ keep your temper down/ or there's the wide open road" tamed into a ditty.
Norah is more 'real' singing Kris Kristofferson's bitter-sweet-bottled 'For the good times', something I certainly can't say when she jazzes down Dolly Parton's classic 'Jolene'. Perhaps she wasn't pushing her chest out enough and singing her heart out like Dolly.
For the Good Times is that kind of record where everyone's busy being sure that everyone's playing perfectly, arranging the music with precision, and singing interestingly. Unfortunately, it lacks the one thing that redeems any country music album — or, any album, for that matter: a boisterousness that's sometimes called the soul.