The opening track to Leonard Cohen‘s 13th album, Popular Problems, is driven by witty wordplay regarding sex and mortality. So, yeah, it would appear that not too much has changed in the songwriter’s nearly 50-year recording career. “I’m lacing up my shoes/ But I don’t want to run/ I’ll get there when I do/ Don’t need no starting gun,” he blithely doles out in a raspy baritone, smirking and leaving it unclear whether the song is about slow sex or the race toward the grave. In the end, it’s both. Some things have changed, to be sure — the glossy organ and backing vocals wouldn’t fit the fingerpicked recordings of his earliest LPs — but this is still the same poet testing out slight stylistic changes for his familiar musings. Much like 2012’s Old Ideas, Popular Problems is a revelation, a document of an artist continuing to produce engaging material into his eighth decade of life without sounding stale.
In my review of that last LP, I wondered whether it might be “the last batch of Cohen originals.” With the emergence of this album, though, it’s been put into sharp relief that the narrative of aging and Cohen’s own perennial insistence upon mortality had combined into an unnecessary presumption. Perhaps it was something I’d put onto Cohen’s narrative due to a fear of death, both his in particular and the concept in general. But that wasn’t Cohen’s last album, and there’s no reason to suspect that this will be either. Popular Problems flashes the exact same brilliance and suffers the exact same setbacks — namely that Cohen’s vocals continue their dark, leathery tumble into the lowest registers and that the production can be too syrupy, respectively. There’s no reason to doubt, at this point, that Cohen could continue to release solid albums as long as he’s alive, and his dance moves on his last string of tour dates suggest there’s no end to that in sight.
“I have to die a little/ Between each murderous thought/ And when I’m finished thinking/ I have to die a lot,” he sings on “Almost Like the Blues”, and it’s immediately clear that he’s not done thinking. The song runs along bloodlines, tracing back the starving, war, and murder to mythical parental figures, only to get to a core of religion: “I listened to their story of the gypsies and the Jews/ It was good, it wasn’t boring/ It was almost like the blues.” Singing with the authority of an old sage, the comfortable voice of a seasoned artist, the slow, sure-footed wisdom of an honest-to-goodness Buddhist monk, it’s hard to resist his magnetic appeal and reasoned conclusions.
The similarities between Cohen’s voice and that of Tom Waits have never been as clear as over the opening piano chords of “Did I Ever Love You”, though Cohen never breaks into those trademark nasal yelps. The song also features the most explicit detachment between Cohen and his accompaniment. His verses on the track lay out like sorrowful hymns, while the chorus bumps along on a country shuffle, the vocals handled exclusively by backing singers Charlean Carmon and Dana Glover. The synth heartbeat underpinning Cohen on “Nevermind” might be an acquired taste, particularly for those longing for the “Avalanche” days, but there’s a strength in the interplay between Cohen’s near-whispered discussion of truth’s ability to outlast the destruction of war and the hand drums and Donna De Lory’s Arabic vocal arcs.
That ability to connect his individual language and obsessions to the outside world similarly drives the elegiac “Samson in New Orleans”, a stunner about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “And we who cried for mercy, from the bottom of the pit/ Was our prayer so damn unworthy, the sun rejected it,” he intones, the line ending without a hint of a question mark despite its formulation. There’s no uncertainty as to the devastation or the abandonment, and Alexandru Bublitchi’s violin mourns alongside Cohen. “Born in Chains” echoes the biblical Exodus in its lyrics, but the Southern gospel trappings of the music tie the song to America’s slavery sins. The Popular Problems of the album’s title could be the recurrence of these ills and pains, playing out from location to location, era to era.
“You got me singing, even though the news is bad,” he rumbles to open the album’s final song, still looking for the escape “even though it all looks grim.” The song that he’s singing? A self-referential wink: “You got me singing the Hallelujah hymn.” Whether that song will save him, whoever it is that has him still singing, whether there’s any sarcasm in that wink — it doesn’t really matter. “You got me thinking that I’d like to carry on,” he adds. Mortality be damned, Leonard Cohen intends to keep on going, slow as he damn well pleases.
Essential Tracks: “Samson in New Orleans”, “Born in Chains”, and “You Got Me Singing”