Cohen fans, rejoice—Popular Problems proves that the power and depth of his music haven’t faded now that the man singing them is officially an octogenarian.
By Matt Hanson
Leonard Cohen is the rare kind of songwriter who could never be accused of sacrificing quality for quantity. Considering the epic lengths of time he takes between albums and the fact that some of his songs have reportedly taken decades to emerge, just having a new album from him is an event. Unlike some of his peers, Cohen’s work remains interesting not because of how much of it there is, but in how much obvious distillation went into what we have.
The recent release of Popular Problems, his 13th studio album, comes a mere two years after the modestly titled Old Ideas, which ended an eight-year lull. The fact that he released his newest album relatively quickly, and on his 80th birthday, is a gift in and of itself. Cohen fans, rejoice—Popular Problems proves that the power and depth of his music haven’t faded now that the man singing them is officially an octogenarian.
Never one to mince words, the famously reticent poet and songwriter lays it out for us in “Slow,” the album’s first track: “It’s not because I’m old/ It’s not the life I’ve lead/ I always liked it slow/ That’s what my mama said.” Somehow this assertion comes out sounding wise, modest, and rather sexy all at once. It’s a trick very few singers can convincingly pull off, whether they have as many miles on them as Cohen does or not.
Popular Problems is rather brief, its nine songs clocking in at just below 36 minutes. Regrettably, it lacks the hypnotic pacing of some of his earlier work. Each song briskly picks up after the last. The album does use an unusual musical range of tones and textures, at times branching out from his usual sonic palette into violin, hand drums, and Arabic vocalizing courtesy of pop veteran Donna De Lory. As always, it’s Cohen’s lyricism, written and sung, which anchors the music.
Cohen can still get more out of a single verse than most songwriters can in whole albums. His voice has held up remarkably well over the years, wear and tear adding a refined gravitas to his unique poetic mixture of Zen simplicity and romantic longing. (His songs have always seemed to emanate from an old soul.) His tunes also have the rare distinction of working effectively when read on the page or recited without musical accompaniment. Mining every syllable for maximum effect, Cohen makes these lines from “Did I Ever Love You” resonate with all the pathos of the devastating question they pose:
The lemon trees blossom
The almond trees wither
Was I ever someone
Who could love you forever?
Popular Problems contains material culled from his previously published poetic works, particularly 2006’s Book of Longing. They don’t come off as stale or seem like filler. For a man who has had to wait patiently for the resurgence of his career (and lucrative world tour for which he’d been long overdue), his back catalog stays fresh almost by default.
Cohen isn’t a topical songwriter in the urgently politicized tradition of, say, Billy Bragg or Phil Ochs. His social commentary is wry and perceptive, but it is more prophetic than journalistic. And he is best when he keeps the former mode in check. When he turns his weary eye on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in “Samson in New Orleans,” the song falls flat because it is weighted down with portentous Biblical imagery and abstruse symbolism.
So the title of the album is somewhat misleading. The songs on Popular Problems don’t dwell on the state of the modern world, our headlines of discontent. Instead, Cohen takes the zeitgeist’s measure by exploring the human condition. He’s an oracle in a fedora, ready as ever to cut the small talk and provide lyrical solace while he elegantly asks the big questions, the ones to which he dedicated years of monastic study as a Buddhist monk, contemplating what William Faulkner called “the eternal verities and truths of the heart.” As Cohen puts it in the album’s final track: “You got me singing/ Even though it all looks grim/ You got me singing/ The Hallelujah hymn.” That’s a solution to a perennial “popular problem” that never ages.
Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.