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Leonard Cohen performs at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, Dec. 2, 2010.

Goodbye darkness, his old friend.

Leonard Cohen has never been one to talk about his songs, explaining that the works are complete and to comment on them would be redundant. And, yeah, sure enough, after hearing Going Home, the soulful opening hat-tip of his new album Old Ideas, what's left for him to say? The piece is an appraisal of Cohen, by Cohen, set to sparse organ accompaniment and barely sung in a quarter-speed rap. There's a suggestion of Hallelujah's swell, and I think I sense a slight smile.

Going Home begins and ends with the same third-person verse: "I love to speak with Leonard, he's a sportsman and a shepherd; He's a lazy bastard, living in a suit." This lazy bastard's 12th album is his first studio outing since 2004's Dear Heather. It's a thoughtful record, of course it is, about bleakness and threads of light, about love and hate and healing, and about slavery and freedom – always, with Cohen, the freedom.

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The gruff baritone inside Cohen's head in Going Home is spiritual, loving and blunt. What's being said has to do with the poet-man's missions and whether or not his choices were ever choices at all: "He wants to write a love song, an anthem of forgiving, a manual for living with defeat / A cry above the suffering, a sacrifice recovering, but that isn't what I need him to complete."

Old Ideas, from the 77-year-old Montreal mope, is a charismatic record – moving, slyly upbeat and even sexy. Cohen is all the lover dude for Anyhow, a simmering vamp that had my dress off by the first chorus. Leonard, my man, you're killing me with "I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less?"

Amen is a softy-brushed shuffle concerning victims and vengeance belonging to the lord. The violin and cornet parts are suave.

The Darkness is a blues, straight up. Dig that swirling organ.

With its soft country lope, Lullaby is for long nights – for sleeping or, you know, whatever. That's Sharon Robinson on angelic backing vocals. She's all over the album, her tone one of tea and sympathy.

I like Crazy to Love You, a Dylanish ballad co-written with Anjani Thomas, a collaborator and more who teamed with the bard on her Blue Alert from 2006. There's a freedom in lunacy, Cohen is saying: "Sometimes I'd head for the highway, I'm old and the mirrors don't lie / But crazy has places to hide in, deeper than saying goodbye."

Saying goodbye, is that what Cohen is doing here? Do hear Going Home and Show Me the Place. The latter is a hymn for the ages, absolutely, in which a soul is low and lost. "Show me the place, where you want your slave to go / Show me the place, I've forgotten, I don't know." And on Going Home, Cohen is leaving without a burden – "going home to where it's better than before."

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Free at last then, Leonard Cohen, birds on a wire have nothing on you.

Old Ideas

  • Leonard Cohen
  • Sony

Other new releases

CLASSICAL: Philip Glass & Michael Nyman: Works for Saxophone Quartet

  • Saxophone Quartet
  • Genuin classics
  • Three stars

Playing Philip Glass's String Quartet No. 3 on four saxophones is conceivably the best thing one could do with it, but ironically a string quartet, that most elite of ensembles, has the effect of elevating this extraordinarily simplistic writing, whereas the saxophone version merely sounds like Glass noodling on an electronic organ with the tremolo stop wide open. It may have taken longer to transcribe the piece for saxophone quartet than it took Glass to write it. Glass's actual Saxophone Quartet has far more compelling textures and grittier energy, despite the long stretches of vamping, while Michael Nyman achieves an odd poignancy in Songs for Tony, owed in no small part to this excellent ensemble's opalescent sound, pristine intonation and melodic flexibility. Elissa Poole

ROCK: America Give Up

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  • Howler
  • Rough Trade
  • Three and a half stars

Good lord, lock up your daughters. The young Minneapolis quartet comes to all towns with a debut album that bursts with hormonal energy and poppy rock that's just dangerous, rugged and disaffected enough. Irresistible is what is, what with jangle and surf-guitar, and punk moves that are tougher. I hear the beach-falsetto harmonies awash in reverb, and there are moments where the Shangri-Las are menaced by the Jam. Though Wailing (Making Out) is a beefier version of a certain photogenic New York band we all know, the album is for folks of all strokes – charged-up boys and girls especially. Brad Wheeler

POP: Ester

  • Trailer Trash Tracys
  • Domino
  • Three stars

Not only is the London quartet's handle an alliterative bit of silliness, it evokes ugly sonic images that are nothing like what actually happens when the music starts. Lead track You Wish You Were Red unabashedly opens with a swiped Baba O'Riley bass line that leads to languid dream pop carried by floating female vocals and, later, brittle arpeggios. Candy Girl is a softly swirling song that has been around for a while: It's the album's most tuneful number, recalls The xx, and is quite catchy with that guitar curl. Strangling Good Guys is starlit euphoria. Girl-group melodies flirt here and there; the electro-percussion will suit some. In sum, it's a beautiful, artful record, issued by band making a name for itself the hard way. B.W.

FOLK: ¿Which Side Are You On?

  • Ani DiFranco
  • Righteous Babe
  • Two stars

After hearing DiFranco bring previously unsung Woody Guthrie lyrics to life on Rob Wasserman's Note of Hope album last year, it's hard not to be a bit disappointed by the title track. However much the title tune might evoke a Guthrie barnburner – and the Pete Seeger cameo definitely helps – DiFranco's lyrics are less a challenge than a harangue, their anger unleavened by wit. Which Side is not all politics; Lifeboat, a deft portrait of a homeless woman, Albacore, a devastatingly beautiful love song, remind us of DiFranco's empathy and warmth. But all too often she's simply preaching to the converted, and the sermon's getting stale. J.D. Considine

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