Thursday night at Webster Hall, the Brooklyn act Cults celebrated a homecoming of sorts. The gloom-pop band’s set included what frontwoman Madeline Follin claimed was a rare encore (assisted by the Indiana MC Freddie Gibbs) and a heap of songs that danced across the line separating the feeling of being totally crushed out and the feeling of crushing romantic disappointment. Reverb-swaddled guitars filled the room, Follin’s hair swinging in the wind as she swayed in time with the music.
At one point, the band took a breather from playing songs from its 2011 debut to bring a cover into the mix: “Everybody Knows,” Leonard Cohen’s stormy track from 1988. “Everybody knows the good guys lost; everybody knows the fight was fixed,” Follin sang bleakly while keyboards chimed behind her. The power of the Canadian troubadour’s statements about a cruel world caused the room to collapse into something more intimate. Follin’s band is as notable for somehow managing to be an enigma in the Internet age as it is for its hummable, glockenspiel-assisted pop jewel “Go Outside.” And she had clearly practiced this Cohen tune a lot—at home, alone, feeling the weary sentiment underlying its blackest lyrics.
The next afternoon, a clutch of people—some of whom had traveled from as far as Montreal and Los Angles—were invited to Joe’s Pub to hear the latest from Cohen, Old Ideas (Columbia). The album, Cohen’s 12th, arrives in record stores Tuesday. Its 10 songs are edited down to only the most necessary musical elements. In contrast to the heavier arrangements of his earlier work, the minimalism is so stark at times that the aftermath of a single string being plucked turns into its own sort of instrumentation, thanks to it having so much room to breathe. Cohen’s bottomless voice curls around sardonic phrases and lamentations about loves lost; the voices of his female collaborators, including longtime foils Sharon Robinson and Jennifer Warnes, swoop in and out, serving as airy counterpoints.
Label-mandated listening sessions for important new records can be sterile affairs, often set in conference rooms or disused offices. Setting the first listen to Old Ideas at the smartly renovated Joe’s Pub was a savvy move, because as the album played through on Friday, the feeling was not unlike being in church: The mid-winter dusk filtered through the windows of Joe’s Pub in such a way as to give the low-lit room an added glow; attendees had their heads bowed in concentration, only looking up to glance around the room or sip from the drinks in front of them; the lyric sheets strewn on each cocktail table served as hymnals, full of Cohen’s sly rhymes and self-lacerating observations. (The reference to a stone being rolled away on “Show Me the Place” and the cross-splinter imagery on the hymnlike “Come Healing” only added to that atmosphere.) “I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd,” Old Ideas begins, and as if to bring that opening line full circle, the formerly reclusive singer was, in fact, in the building and ready to answer questions.
In 2009, I saw one of Cohen’s Beacon Theater shows, his first concerts in the United States after about 15 years. The performance didn’t show any signs of rust: He ran through his catalog with aplomb and inspired at least 10 standing ovations, and throughout, he was charming and gracious, going so far as to thank even the woman who took care of his hats. Friday’s appearance was no different. Even the most hard-headed journalists in the room seemed to be holding their breath, rapt with attention and asking questions with keen attention paid to each word he uttered in his singular voice. Which actually sounded a bit different than it had in previous years, he noted: “My voice is getting lower and lower because I gave up smoking. I expected it to rise. It went the other way.”
Cohen, seated at a table just below the stage, talked about the album, the goings-on in his own world (“My own personal life is as shabby, dismal, and uninteresting as the rest of ours,” he said at one point), and memories of his time living at the Chelsea Hotel, when things were so rough that he “believed in these powders . . . and bought a book on candles.” The book on candles proved to be a somewhat useful conversation piece with fellow Chelsea Hotel resident Edie Sedgwick. In an attempt to chat her up, he blurted out that the arrangement of candles in her room would probably catch fire one day, and, he claimed, that “one day” wound up being the day after he’d blurted out his warning.
It almost didn’t matter if the story were true or apocryphal. The room shook with laughter, the assembled collectively thrilled that they were hearing this tale of The Lost New York That Probably Won’t Be Coming Back Anytime Soon from as expert a storyteller as Cohen. Old Ideas, with its blend of lyrics old and new (including “Banjo,” a mournful tune about love and instruments lost that, Cohen said, was inspired by the imagery coming out of New Orleans post-Katrina) and its foregrounding of Cohen’s basso profundo, is similarly intimate, its 10 songs speaking to the heartache that everybody knows in a way that simultaneously enthralls and causes heartbreak.