Ever since his stark 1967 musical debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian performer, poet, and songwriter has earned more than his fair share of accolades and awards. He’s sold over 23 million albums and published 12 books of verse. Through it all, Cohen has remained both unique and consistent in his attention to his most important themes.
For example, his 1971 Songs of Love and Hate was just that, an exploration into the conflicting deepest drives of the human condition. In 1992, The Future was the call of an Old Testament prophet crying for the need for hope, perseverance, and reformation for all of us living in dark times. In 2012, his Old Ideas was taken by many as a restatement of these concerns from the point of view of an elder statesman of verse looking back over a long career through the lens of Zen Buddhism. His new Popular Problems, Cohen’s 13th album, is a continuation of these themes, juxtaposing hope and despair, grief and yearning, and, yes, love and hate. It’s also another illustration of how words can mean very different things on the page as opposed to an audio performance of them.
Released two days after his 80th birthday, Cohen’s nine-song Popular Problems is a collaboration with co-writer Patrick Leonard. As with Old Ideas, Cohen still draws from the same philosophical and spiritual wells of his past, and he again paints his lyrical mysteries from the perspective of a sage who’s earned his world-weariness. For example, the atmospheric opener, “Slow,” is built on a low-key organ base with horn section punctuation in which Cohen looks back over his life and claims he always liked things slow. It’s not age, he sings, that makes him want to “finish last.”
The equally moody and percussive “Almost Like the Blues” has Cohen revisiting tropes from The Future, this time a little uncertain about the possibility of salvation in a world of murder, rape, and “bad reviews.” There’s a wry wit present in Cohen’s vocals that might not be obvious when reading lines like, “So says the great professor of all there is to know/But I’ve had the invitation that a sinner can’t refuse/And it’s almost like salvation/It’s almost like the blues.”
A sad violin provides the middle and coda for one of the set’s most distinctive offerings, “Samson in New Orleans,” which sounds like one of Cohen’s oblique hymns where he moves from the first to the second person to address a modern Samson who thinks New Orleans is better than the USA, but he needs to take the temple down. As usual, such obscure pronouncements sound more revelatory than they actually are.
Likewise, the elliptical “A Street” has Cohen saying the party is over as he addresses a colorful friend who wears military uniforms, telling him the poet is standing “on a corner where there used to be a street.” Cohen acknowledges the illusory meaning of words in the dirge, “Born in Chains,” chanting “Blessed by the name, the name be blessed.”
In a similar vein, Cohen revisits the topic of war in “Nevermind” where Cohen muses over what is truth, what comes from “a bowl of lies,” with the lyrics interspersed with a chanted Middle-Eastern counter-melody. When it comes to love, Cohen sends mixed signals. A plucking dobro gives “My Oh My” a haunted bluegrass dimension where Cohen admits, “It was easy to love you, I didn’t have to try.” But the surprising “Did I Ever Love You” is a list of unanswerable repeated questions about love delivered in shifting tones and settings. Once again, there’s nothing easy about nailing down Cohen’s feelings on anything.
Perhaps the least mysterious song is the album’s closer, “You Got Me Singing” which is as straightforward a personal statement as Cohen has ever shared. Supported by acoustic guitar and violin, Cohen confesses he’s inspired to sing even if the world is gone and everything seems bleak. “You got me thinking that I’d like to carry on/You got me singing/Even though it all looks grim/You got me singing the hallelujah hymn.” But these hymns are sung by a man who claims, “There is no God in heaven/And there is no Hell below.”
The principal difference between Old Ideas and Popular Problems is that the latter has a fuller, more spacious sound. That’s perhaps due to the presence of Patrick Leonard in the control booth. That’s not to say Popular Problems has the same depth and punch of The Future, but all the musical support evokes the kinds of settings Cohen has employed from the beginning. In particular, he still likes the gospel harmonies of female backing singers, horn sections, and strings that make the songs more affirming and sometimes celebratory than the lyrics would suggest. In other words, Cohen is to be experienced as an artist and no one should pretend to understand when he is being ironic, deliberately vague, playful, or too mystical for simplistic explication. And that’s what poetry is all about.
Popular Problems shouldn’t be considered the capstone for Cohen’s career, at least not yet. It’s a good album for Cohen devotees but isn’t likely to widen his appeal or impact his established reputation one way or another. Still, making good albums at 80 is no mean feat. My door is open for more.
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