Release Date: Sep 23, 2014
Record label: Columbia
Genre(s): Folk, Pop/Rock
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American life, but obviously that dictum doesn’t hold much weight for people who come from north of the 49th parallel judging by the phenomenal third act that Leonard Cohen is currently experiencing. With his newest album, Popular Problems, timed to release on his 80th birthday, it seems that the only thing that will stop Cohen’s creative surge is the drop of the final curtain.
These days, it's become increasingly rare to see a "legendary" musical artist truly improve with age. With a few notable exceptions (Nick Cave chief amongst them), the heroes of yesteryear are either trotted out on comeback tours solely to revisit their hits, or they choose to write new material that is more often than not greeted with a lukewarm reception, plagued by the spectre of their aging back catalogue. Leonard Cohen exists in a different category; whether you see him as an elder statesman, a shaman, an artist poet, a sexy grandpa or a charity case, his latter-day albums are treated with a hushed reverence by just about everyone — even if they sometimes tend towards the inconsistent and, more recently, the outright maudlin.
Leonard Cohen seems to be incapable of retirement. In fact, he has found new, increasingly wry and self-mocking perspectives from his pensioner status. On 2004’s Dear Heather (which, at the time, felt like a surreal swansong) he declared that “women have been exceptionally kind to my old age”. On the first song on Popular Problems, an album carefully timed to coincide with Cohen’s 80th birthday, he wants to slow things down – but, and be sure of this, “it’s not because I’m old”.
Popular Problems is principally concerned with conflict, disaster and the almighty, but the second great gag on Leonard Cohen’s 13th album is to start it with Slow, a fabulously sleazy blues about making the moment last. Ahem. “Let me catch my breath,” Cohen rumbles, his voice an underground train several feet beneath the soil, “I thought we had all night.” It’s not his age slowing him down, Cohen gargles; he’s always taken his time, in life as in love.
With each year that passes, Leonard Cohen’s voice gets ever deeper. On this, his 13th studio album, his gravelly vocals are so low they’re practically in the gutter – as is, brilliantly, his mind. Opener ‘Slow’ has the soon-to-be octogenarian seemingly crooning about the perks of an unhurried shag, before his usual weighty touchstones of sinners, salvation, love and death come into play.
Everything Leonard Cohen does becomes Leonard Cohen. I mean that both ways. From his early, eerie folk songs to I’m Your Man’s so-of-its-time synthesized beats, horns, and keys, Cohen has proven that his voice, both literal and artistic, is capable of taking control of perhaps any musical context and raising his leathern flag upon its soil. To witness Cohen’s masterful absorbing, processing, and unifying of genre in practice, see 2009’s Live In London, a sprawling example of the bard’s ability to smooth out the differences throughout his entire discography, creating, as if for just one night, an essential Leonard Cohen.
How’s this for timing? Just as the age of Twitter has whipped the world into a frenzy of speed and distraction, Leonard Cohen decides to open his gorgeous new album with a song called “Slow.” The piece acts as both a mission statement and a boast — a declaration by the great bard Cohen of his life-long devotion to methodical thought and sensual contemplation. “I’m slowing down the tune/I never liked it fast,” he drawls. “You want to get there soon/I want to get there last.” The lyrics offer a perfect summation of his improbable career.
It is hard to elicit goodwill for someone who took £5m from a pensioner, but perhaps anyone who loves Leonard Cohen’s music owes his former manager Kelley Lynch a grudging debt of thanks. It’s strange to imagine now, but when Cohen’s 11th studio album, Dear Heather, was released a decade ago, it was widely received as his farewell. It wasn’t just that Cohen was 70 years old: everything about Dear Heather suggested a man in the process of disappearing from music.
The story of latter-day Leonard Cohen is one of wry acceptance. Fleeced by a manager of his retirement savings between the mid-1990s and mid-'00s, he returned to the stage in 2008, 73 years old and nearly broke after four decades of hard work. The shows he played were better than they needed to be in order to get people to pay for them. At one that I saw in late 2012, he reminded me of a cat, drawing the audience in by pulling away, rolling over and showing his softer, playful side only to snap back into cool focus.
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.
Leonard Cohen’s 13th studio album, Popular Problems, arrives two days after his 80th birthday, and it is a stunning testament to the singer’s rejuvenated strength in performance and his ongoing mastery of song structure. All of the characteristics that have defined Cohen’s long career are present here, the humor, the tongue-in-somebody’s-cheek sexuality, the longing spirituality. Cohen is America’s poet/prophet of the sacred and profane, and he delivers majestically on this brief but powerful album.
As most classic artists get older, they have to endure commentary on how well they’re coping with the ageing process – are they having to act their age a little bit more? Have their lyrics taken on a preoccupation with faith and death? And has age weathered the talents that made their name in the first place? Luckily, Leonard Cohen doesn’t really have to worry about any of these things, as he’s pretty much the same character at 80 as he was aged 33 when his debut album emerged in 1967. From an older generation than his singer-songwriter contemporaries even then, Cohen always seemed an age apart, while his songs have thrived on a mixture of existential angst, musings on life and death and the darkest of jet black humour. Cohen has also always had a voice that nestles at the very deepest end of the register, but here, on his thirteenth album, one of the immediate things you notice is that he seems to developed a more ragged edge than usual.
If you've seen Leonard Cohen perform live recently, you know he's still got it: that iconic chocolatey voice delivering poem-songs that are at once sensual, spiritual and sardonic, backed by slick bands and smooth singers. But on his 13th album - coinciding with the celebration of his 80th birthday - the bard from Montreal makes a questionable decision in getting co-writer Patrick Leonard to produce. The backup vocals that seem de rigueur on all Cohen albums are often unnecessary here and at their worst distracting when sung overtop the main attraction.
Leonard Cohen's Popular Problems is an uncharacteristically quick follow-up to 2012's Old Ideas. That record, cut in the aftermath of a multi-year tour, revitalized him as a recording artist. Producer Patrick Leonard (Madonna, Bryan Ferry) helms and plays on Popular Problems, and serves as co-writer on all but one tune. While Cohen's sound has revolved around keyboards since 1988's I'm Your Man, Leonard gets that the real power in the songwriter's lyrics are best relayed through his own own simple melodies.
“I always liked it slow / Slow is in my blood,” a rasping Leonard Cohen claims at the start of his 13th album, Popular Problems. That’s true—one number, “Born In Chains,” took a reported 40 years’ worth of revisions to get right—though in fact the Canadian songwriter is speeding up in his 80th year. Popular Problems arrives just two and a half years after 2012’s Old Ideas, a half-second in the lifespan of this career and a departure from Cohen’s (in)famously arduous gestation period.
There’s no giddy youth optimism here; instead, it’s all hard-earned truths and uncomfortable conclusions from folk poet Leonard Cohen, who turned 80 on Sept. 21. The raspy Zen disciple has enjoyed a remarkable comeback in recent years, and that should continue with “Popular Problems,” which for Cohen amounts to heavy questions about love, war, spiritual crisis, and how the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina was botched (“Samson in New Orleans”).
Leonard CohenPopular Problems(Sony)Rating: 4 out of 5 stars There are very few songwriters who leave you hanging on their every word for fear that, should you miss the slightest aside or tossed-off phrase, something of profound significance will have slipped past. Leonard Cohen, about to celebrate his 80th birthday, is one of those rare songwriters. Yet even as his center-of-the-Earth deep voice bestows import on each line and even when the subject matter is the weighty stuff of love, life, and death, the twinkle in his eyes that’s somehow audible on his recordings keeps things light and nimble.
One song leaps out of Leonard Cohen’s 13th studio album, “Popular Problems,” arriving two days after he turned 80. “Nevermind” chugs calmly into earshot with a terse bass vamp from a keyboard and a single muffled drum playing only the beat. Mr. Cohen’s voice, a low husk barely above a whisper, chants the lyrics, putting a rhythmic edge on its seeming nonchalance.