NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sitting in a dimly lit New York City bar wearing a trilby hat and a dark suit, no tie, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen pauses before responding to a question about how his ideas have changed over his lengthy career.
He smiles and recalls something his close friend, the late Canadian poet Irving Layton, once said.
“‘Leonard’s mind has not been contaminated by a single idea,’” the 77-year-old Cohen quipped dryly, eliciting laughter from an audience gathered for a preview of his first studio album of new material in eight years, ‘Old Ideas.’
The album, which sees its release on January 31, touches on themes the Montreal-born poet has spent a lifetime exploring — love, sex, faith, mortality and others. But there is a lightness to the work, and Cohen refuses to take himself too seriously.
‘I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard/Living in a suit,’ he croons in his
gravelly baritone on the opening track, ‘Going Home.’
The 10 new songs are minimalist in construction, recalling some of Cohen’s earlier and most well-known works, like ‘Suzanne,’ ‘Bird on a Wire,’ and the often-covered ‘Hallelujah.’
Long-time Cohen collaborators, Jennifer Warne, Sharon Robinson, and Anjali Thomas also lend their voices to the album, which is lightly peppered with guitar, keyboards, horns and strings.
Cohen said the album came together more quickly than many of his previous 11 studio recordings, but it is still a struggle to try to manifest one’s self in song.
“You are trying to do one of the few things you barely know how to do,” he told Reuters following the listening session. “You are dealing with an almost unbreakable silence, and you’re grateful if anything comes through.”
Cohen also has released several live and best-of albums, and published 10 books of poetry and two novels.
In New York, many of the critics at the preview — there were dozens — sat through around 40 minutes of music, listening with eyes closed, heads tilted back, and smiling slightly as though basking in the sunshine of his melodies. Others bobbed their heads gently. Some closely read the lyrics as he sang.
Cohen later entered the room to generous applause and then took questions, offering a glimpse into his reclusive life: His crush on Edie Sedgwick, the beautiful New York socialite, in the mid-1960s; his feelings of deep loss and discomfort after Hurricane Katrina; the honor of sharing a drink from the golden bowl of his 104-year-old Zen Buddhist teacher.
The poet and singer-songwriter, who divides his time between Montreal and Los Angeles, battled depression for much of his life, but in recent years has been in a better mental space.
He said his two-year world tour “warmed some part of my heart that had taken on a chill,” and that he would like to go out on the road again in the near future.
The tour, which concluded in 2010, was Cohen’s first in 15 years and was born of necessity after his former manager stole the bulk of his savings while Cohen was on a five-year Buddhist retreat in California, forcing the singer to go on the road to rebuild his bank account.
Now, Cohen said he is looking forward to getting back on stage and that it might be a good time to polish another half-dozen songs that he has been working on, but which were not ready for the release of ‘Old Ideas.’
“The words are written,” he told Reuters. “It’s a matter of finding the voice, the right voice, so that it’s true, and not just a slogan.”
Reporting By John McCrank, Editing by Bob Tourtellotte