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. All of those contrasting and complementing qualities are on sterling display on Popular Problems, Cohen’s latest humbly-presented yet impressively-rendered set of musings.
Cohen has hit a suddenly productive streak, as Popular Problems follows fast on the heels of 2012’s Old Ideas. Those album titles are a bit of false modesty, suggesting that these are not new or unique topics which are being undertaken. Yet even the oldest stories in the book can be rewritten by the hand of a master to sound newly-minted.
As on Old Ideas, Cohen collaborates in songwriting with producer Patrick Leonard. No one but the two men knows the exact division of labor, but it seems safe to say that Patrick Leonard plays a big part in the musical diversity. On the album Cohen dips into stark funk (“Nevermind”), testifying gospel (“Born In Chains”) and back-porch folk (“You Got Me Singing”) in addition to his usual mix of blues and ballads.
That variety helps to highlight Cohen’s interpretive skills. Those who dismiss his vocals as monotone are missing out on the soulful power he brings to “Did I Ever Love You” or the sly humor he ladles on “Slow.” Even on a relatively straightforward track like “My Oh My,” the subtle shadings he adds to each reading of the refrain draw new meanings from it every time.
Even though Cohen might be tackling the same kind of emotional content that he has many times before, some specific events come to the fore. “A Street” contains some echoes of the 9/11 tragedy, while “Samson In New Orleans” is a gorgeous elegy which brings to the surface all the rage and sorrow accompanying Hurricane Katrina. A phrase like “the remnant of dishonor on the bridge of misery” sums up that range of emotions in a breath.
In typical Cohen fashion, bits of autobiography sneak into his state-of-the-world updates. On the standout “Almost Like The Blues,” he sings, “There’s torture and there’s killing/And all my bad reviews,” implying that personal worries pull the same weight as nobler concerns. Opening track “Slow” sings the praises of a tepid pace, although whether the song is about love-making or record-making is up for debate.
After the religious questing of “Born In Chains,” the album closes out with the uplifting, lighthearted “You Got Me Singing.” Accompanied by acoustic guitar and wistful violin, Cohen sings, “You got me singing even though the world is gone/You got me thinking I’d like to carry on.” One can only hope that last line refers to his recording career, because Cohen still elucidates the Popular Problems of the world and its harried denizens as well as anyone.