2012 saw new albums by three of the Twentieth Century’s leading poet-songwriters. None were bad, though their quality did vary. Here are the reviews.
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas
Leonard Cohen’s output has been uneven: He predominantly writes poems and relies on others to make them work as songs. (He’s also the artist I’m least familiar with in this article. His only other album that I know well is Songs, and even his fans tell me not to bother with many of the others.) Fortunately, Old Ideas is one of the good ones. The music perfectly fits the plainspoken art of the lyrics, with understated backup singers and a gentle, introspective rhythm. It would be easy to give Cohen’s music a pretentious choral flair to recognize his status, or the stripped-down plucking of a starving artist busking on a corner. By splitting the difference between the two, Old Ideas’ music emphasizes the ways both apply to him while avoiding the pitfalls of either extreme.
Cohen always had an old soul, but as an old man still has some youthful restlessness. The “old ideas” of the album title are sex, love, pain, and death, and the songs feel like they could have come from any point in his lifetime. Cohen’s lyrics are direct and grounded in reality, creating evocative images with straightforward language. For example, a troubled relationship puts its members “on different sides of a line nobody drew”. Even when he moves away from literal reality, it’s not very far: The “broken banjo bobbing on the dark infested sea” is one of a couple tracks which treat “darkness” as a literal force that can invade us. The only literary conceit is in the standout opening track, when the muse speaks directly to us to explain how it forces Cohen to deliver these poems.
I listened to this album repeatedly, sure that I was missing out on the true depth of the songs. Eventually, I realized that their surface appearance was the extent of it. Old Ideas features no more and no less than songs distilled down to their beautiful essence. It’s not everything that some people claim this master can deliver, but it’s very good.
Bob Dylan – Tempest
Bob Dylan: Tempest
The modern era of Bob Dylan began with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind and seemed like it would be a brief final phase for him. But after fifteen years and five albums, it is obvious that this is one of the most powerful eras of his long career. This man never sounded like he had anything to prove, but he is more confident than ever.
Don’t expect the wordplay or verbal gymnastics of the young Dylan. He has embraced the old-time sounds from before he was even born, and plays it fairly straight. The genius of most of these songs is not his unique fingerprint, but the feeling that you’re finally hearing the best songs of the early 20th century. (There are catchy lines, like “I’ll pay in blood, but not my own” and “if I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday”, but he’s not trying to reveal the human condition here.) The band provides bluesy folk with an energetic bounce, and Dylan’s voice is fuller than ever before.
Dylan’s an old man now, and his songs embrace it, but he isn’t quietly facing the end of life. As the title implies, nearly all songs involve tempests of some sort or another. From brawls to romantic tiffs, Dylan’s persona is that deeply passionate old man as likely to pick a fight over his “flat-chested junkie whore” as he is to sacrifice everything for his loved ones.
The classic song topics are all here, from trains to love to murder, and they often capture those archetypes perfectly. Consider “Tin Angel”, based on the trope of a king tracking down the wife who ran off for love. The title track is his take on the sinking of the Titanic, a forgotten topic that used to be as common as dance songs are today. Much has been made of the fact that this song is fourteen minutes long, but what I haven’t heard anyone point out is that it feels like it flows by in five. It’s as if Dylan is trying to personally make up for the loss of Titanic songs in our culture, and accomplishes it in a single track. (With verses ranging from serious to comedic, this is also the closest Dylan comes to exploring greater meaning. The songs about the Titanic were fundamentally about making sense of tragedy.)
Tempest stands among the best of Dylan’s long, accomplished career. If you like Dylan or traditional music, this is a must-have. If you don’t, consider this your gateway.
Patti Smith – Banga
Patti Smith: Banga
Though known as the preeminent “punk poet”, Patti Smith has spent the better part of her career as a folk-pop poet. She doesn’t often hit the highs of her youth, but this hasn’t been a bad move for her: Smith has a good singing voice, and it conveys her fervent passions as well as her punk songs did. Banga, her first album of new music in eight years, has only a few hints of rock. This may disappoint anyone who knows Smith mainly from her 1970’s work, but it could be her most consistently pretty album ever.
However, it also feels like one of her less meaningful albums. Smith always has a lot to convey, and if it’s easy to call her an idealistic hippie, she does find creative and honest ways to express those ideals. None of the songs in Banga directly touched me, though, and the meanings to many are obscured. (Where they are obvious, they are less impressive than past works. The discovery of the Americas comes up a few times, with a focus on the peaceful “Eden” that it offered. I am uncomfortable with the patronizing “noble savage” attitude that some people take towards Native Americans.)
What really makes this album worthwhile is the CD booklet. (Hopefully you didn’t already buy it digitally…) Featuring a six-page essay, plus photos, it helps to put the album in context. While the other two albums I’m reviewing here feel disconnected from the modern world, her inspirations ranged from old friends to Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov to The Hunger Games. Some explanations help a lot (such as knowing that “This Is The Girl” eulogizes Amy Winehouse), while others don’t at all (I’m not familiar with most of the works that inspired Smith, and while “Nine” was written as a birthday present for Johnny Depp, I don’t hear any of that in the song). Even so, Smith’s writing and photography are always a pleasure.
Smith’s plans aren’t always well-executed (“Constantine’s Dream” is an improvised speech about Constantine’s conversion, Christopher Columbus, and Smith’s research into artists they inspired, but it doesn’t really go anywhere in its ten minutes), but her conviction and songwriting remain strong. The album’s main weakness is the ever-more obscure reference points Smith has, even when she draws from pop culture. Fans will find plenty of meaning to unpack. To others, this is a collection of beautiful-sounding songs, but they will feel surprisingly slight.