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Opinion: Three new releases by old guys, music icons

April 13, 2012
The Herald-Star

This week I review three new releases by three icons that have been around the block once or twice - Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and Willie Nelson.

-- Leonard Cohen - "Old Ideas," Columbia

Leonard Cohen is one of modern music's greatest treasures. But on "Old Ideas" he's facing facts, and that is that at 77 years old he knows he's not going to be around forever.

Cohen's obviously been thinking a lot lately about his mortality, and while "Old Ideas" may not be his most uplifting album, it certainly is one of his most meditative in a long time.

At times "Old Ideas" sounds like the long goodbye from Cohen, as he contemplates the mystical in "Going Home," "Amen" and "Show Me the Place." A longtime Buddhist, Cohen always seemed to embrace all religions as having something worthy as well as something dark. A man who started his career as a poet, his best, idiosyncratic compositions have always seemed to suspend time in some way, leaving the listener hanging - musical zen, as it were.

Still, there's a comfort there in even his darkest songs, as the promise of something new is always at hand - a new journey is about to begin, and contemplating death is just as every bit as interesting as contemplating life.

Cohen sounds a little tired on this quiet album, and that's only natural since he's spent the last several years touring and recording new product. There's also a quiet dignity, as his deep baritone almost completely abandons "traditional" singing for a poet's recitation, which also seems appropriate.

I can only hope I face mortality with such dignity, quiet reflection and lack of angst. I doubt it, though. Leonard Cohen is, and always will be, one of a kind.

-- Willie Nelson - "Heroes," Columbia

Willie Nelson's pushing 80, but you'd never know it from his prolific recording and touring schedule.

Taking on classic country, jazz, R&B, rock and blues, Nelson at this point in his career defies defining, as he puts out an album every four months or so that's completely different from the last. How does he do it in between almost constant touring?

I don't know. Maybe it's something he puts in his pipe.

"Heroes" is Nelson's first album back on Columbia Records in decades, but he really didn't change anything in his perspective or freewheeling ways. The album centers on Nelson's usual laid-back style with a couple of barn burners and oddball guest stars you come to expect with a Nelson release.

Guest stars include his son Lukas Nelson, who has his own successful solo career; outlaw country veteran and longtime Willie friend Merle Haggard; Sheryl Crow and classic country friends, including Kris Kristopherson, Billy Joe Shaver and Ray Price.

The album is a mix of classic country with a nod to a few modern songwriters, including a great cover of Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe."

While Cohen envisions his life ending quietly without fanfare, Nelson typically wants to go out with a party, chronicled in the only fresh song he's written for the album, "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," an outrageous duet with Kristopherson, and, of all people, Snoop Dog. Guess what the song's about?

Pure Nelson from first cut to last, "Heroes" will delight Willie fans. Nelson is an American treasure, and I like his style.

-- Bruce Springsteen - "Wrecking Ball," Columbia

Bruce Springsteen doesn't have to work this hard, as he's well into his sixties, and if he never played another note his reputation as a master songsmith is ensured. But Springsteen has more to say on "Wrecking Ball" than he has in a long time, and it s all good.

A mixture of rage and hope, "Wrecking Ball" finds Springsteen at his most political since "The Ghost of Tom Joad," released in the mid-90s. Springsteen goes back to that same well and laments what his country has become in a blue-collar, Woody Guthrie-inspired sort of way. There a lot of ghosts in Springsteen's view of what modern America has become, from the view of the decline of the country and its polarization. But what Springsteen seems to find most offensive is the death of hope and fading belief that America can bounce back from almost anything.

He remembers that American well, because it's the one he's been singing about his whole career. "Wrecking Ball" is a defiant clarion call to action, whether it's the end of smalltown America in "Death to My Hometown" or the taunt to the negative powers destroying the dream in the title cut.

The overall tone of the album is powerful, defiant and hopeful, and Springsteen obviously put a lot of work into "Wrecking Ball."

He also shows he has the courage to change, as the album is laden with cutting-edge loops and guest musicians that don't normally adhere to Springsteen's template, such as guest guitarist Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine. Sonically, "Wrecking Ball" is interesting in a way that a Tom Waits' album is interesting, and that's a most-welcome development. Highly recommended.

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