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A poet whistling past the graveyard

From a recent news conference held to coincide with the release of "Old Ideas," the Guardian newspaper of London quotes the revered songwriter, poet and raconteur Leonard Cohen greeting questions from the assembled with his typical deadpan gallows humor.

One reporter asks Cohen, who is 77, if he has come to terms with death.

"I've come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that I am going to die," Cohen responds. "So naturally those questions arise and are addressed. But, you know, I like to do it with a beat."

Cohen provided the most incisive review of "Old Ideas" we are likely to be granted with that short, wry, grin of an answer. "Old Ideas," like every single album Cohen has released over the 40-plus years he has been (sporadically) at it, is a collection of brilliant poems set to rhythm and placed in the barest of harmonic settings. Again, one is rightly allowed to concentrate on the words themselves, and the fragrance of a melody that carries them along on their way.

Cohen has always been the mildly bemused poet whistling past the graveyard, weathered and dog-eared paperback copies of Kerouac and Rimbaud tucked under his arm, a fine suit hanging on his carcass, and a tragically beautiful woman on his arm -- one who, invariably, has already made up her mind to leave, but hasn't done so, quite yet. When she finally does, our Leonard will sigh wistfully, and get on with it.

We love this character, even if we know it is simply a character, not the man -- the map, not the road. We love the battered baritone that sing-speaks its way through simple chord progressions and drops its pearls before the swine with a knowing wink and a tip of the hat. And we love "Old Ideas," too, because it's full of them, and when your ideas are as consistently strong and striking as Cohen's are, you don't really need any new ideas.

Of course, Cohen hasn't exactly been prolific over the years, and therefore, he hasn't worn out his welcome. "Old Ideas" is only album No. 12 in a series of releases that began with "Songs of Leonard Cohen" in 1967. Cohen makes records only when he has something to say, it would seem.

"Dear Heather" from 2004 and "Ten New Songs" from 2001 balanced Cohen's dry-as-a-bone intonations against largely synthetic backings -- synths and drum machines, a tendency compellingly initiated with the early '90s effort "The Future," but one that yielded diminishing returns with each subsequent effort.

Happily, "Old Ideas" is a sparse and largely acoustic affair, with pianos, acoustic guitars, gently brushed snare drums and percussion doing most of the lifting, and the subtle employment of female backing vocals acting as lace to Cohen's leather.

During album opener "Going Home," a piece that moves along with a supple gospel feel, Cohen gruffly speaks of "writing a manual for living with defeat," and refers to himself as "a lazy bastard living in a suit." The song summons a certain end-of-the-road lambency, its gentle gait aided by deftly employed strings and percussion. "Amen" follows, and we are instantly reminded of Cohen's shabby and shambolic doppelganger, Tom Waits, as Cohen leads a junkyard jazz band through a funereal riffing on the Lord's Prayer.

"Darkness" arrives in the form of a finger-picked acoustic blues, as Cohen spits out a grim rhyme scheme: "I've got no future/ I know my days are few/ The present's not that pleasant/ just a lot of things to do/ I thought the past would last me/ But the darkness got that, too." Here, we're reminded of Bob Dylan's "Not Dark Yet," another "I'm getting a little bit tired of all of this living"-themed lament. And yet, Cohen makes this all sound kinda fun, an inevitable state of mind that one might as well grin and bear.

There are moments of resplendent beauty tucked into the folds and wrinkles of "Old Ideas" -- the gorgeous melody and female vocal harmonies that herald the hymnlike "Come Healing"; the mournful harmonica that haunts the twilit edges of the waltz-time "Lullaby"; the ephemeral Farfisa organ that chugs subtly through parting shot "10 Different Sides." This ear candy offers brilliant contrast to Cohen's affable croak, and is a testament to the brilliance of the spare song arrangements.

Inescapable death. Betrayal. Fleeting love. The shadowy presence of a none-too-pleased deity. The sexual commingling of shame and desire, lust and love -- these are, as ever, Cohen's themes. When it comes to working them into prose-poetry, popular music has never produced anyone else who can do so with an equal blend of technical brilliance, weary wit, and the glimmer of joy that comes when we choose to laugh rather than cry.

The ideas may be old, but they are far from dead.

email: jmiers@buffnews.com

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Leonard Cohen

Old Ideas

[Sony]

3 stars