Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas (Columbia) 

The usual hushed, spiritual material, though he seems to be holding back

On the follow-up to 2004's underrated Dear Heather, North America's finest songwriter sounds cursed by his pedestal. Once an outlier in his slate of mid-'80s apocalyptic warnings you could dance to, "Hallelujah" has become his signature tune, and an impossible foundation: you get the sense that every new Leonard Cohen song that dissects desire, wickedness and sin is designed as a hymn, an open hand risen up to the heavens.

He knows he's good at such hushed, spiritual material, particularly as his voice wears down and cackles with knowing irony. Is it wrong, though, during an LP that embodies some of the strongest songs and lyrics in his four-decade career, to miss the unhinged moments? The beats? The menace? 

The calm resignation of aging on Old Ideas is moving, but it's hard not to feel regret when he expounds and seduces but almost never bites, as though he's holding back out of professionalism. Kinkier oddball selections "Amen" and "Different Sides" provide some relief, and when Cohen sneers "Come on baby, give me a kiss/Stop writing everything down," this record suddenly seems worth the seven-year wait.

More by Nathan Phillips

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