“Does anybody have a cigarette?” Leonard Cohen asked the small group of journalists gathered to hear Cohen’s brand new album, Popular Problems, at Joe’s Pub in New York City on Thursday afternoon. He wasn’t kidding. “Really, does anybody know where you can buy a Turkish cigarette in this town?” Cohen was answering questions from the writer Alan Light, who recently wrote an entire book devoted to Cohen’s opus “Hallelujah.” It was a quick Q&A, no more than ten minutes, but before the singer left, Light wanted to ask one final question: Was it true, as Cohen has joked on stage and in interviews over the last few years, that the singer was going to start up smoking again once he turned 80 next week? The seventy-nine-year-old singer seemed dead serious. “I’ve been thinking about that first cigarette for 30 years,” he said proudly. “It’s been one of my few consistent thoughts.”
But before we were treated to an in-person interview with Cohen, Popular Problems (out September 23) was played in its entirety for everyone in attendance. Although most of the room had already heard the record in some form or another (it’s currently streaming in its entirety on NPR), it was a treat to hear Cohen’s latest collection of gentle prayers in a silent room full of people.
The album’s nine tracks are another first-rate group of songs from Cohen, who, on the verge of 80, has shown no signs of slowing down as a songwriter. Cohen is as sharp, bleak, and funny as ever on his thirteenth album: “Samson in New Orleans” is a gorgeous elegy for the post-Katrina Crescent City, “Almost Like The Blues” is brimming with black humor (“I listened to their story of the Gypsy and the Jews/It was good, it wasn’t boring”), and songs like “You Got Me Singing” and “Born in Chains” are moving gestures of bright light and grace. As for the heartbreaking one liners? “I’m standing on this corner/where there used to be a street,” Cohen sings halfway through the record.
Working once again with producer Patrick Leonard, Cohen’s vocals, which are front and center, are most often at their most solemnly ragged. The drunk piano ballad “Did I Ever Love You” finds Cohen channeling Tom Waits, whereas the singer softly croons his way through the simple fiddle melody on “You Got Me Singing.”
During the Q&A. Leonard confessed that once he finishes records these days, he “tends to develop a benevolent amnesia of the process.” When Light asked him to confirm that most of the recording process was indeed a blur, the Canadian singer added that “at this point, most things are a blur.”
Cohen was in typical good humor doing the interview, pausing to thank the audience several times and even interrupting to thank Light for his book at one point. “It’s always a mess, but the mess is a little bit messier” the singer remarked when asked to discuss the current political climate with relation to some of his new songs. Then he got up, thanked the crowd once again, and disappeared.