Godfather of godfathers, Leonard Cohen has always been very good at tearing himself apart – never in the philistine sense of butchering life and limb for the sake of a song; rather Mr. Cohen dissects himself gently. He pins a bit here and a bit there, marking off points on his own map. Part Canadian and part American, part Jew and part Buddhist, part rocker and part old man; he’s travelled through his life and career sticking to everything and nothing all at once.
Not too long ago, Cohen was pulled out of an assumed retirement after being swindled for millions by his former manager/lover. To the delight of everyone everywhere he took back to the road, selling out 10,000 seat arenas in a matter of minutes. Donning his iconic Fedora and dark suit, he serenaded the world with songs that no longer earned him a penny. He would often remove his hat and sometimes even kneel in reverence to those playing or singing with him on stage. Smack in the middle of his 70’s, the world was relieved to find that Cohen has remained through all things – a gentleman.
Cohen turned 80 this year and celebrated with the release of his 13th studio album Popular Problems. The title itself speaks to the comfortable contradictions Cohen has always embraced. Produced by collaborator Patrick Leonard (who also co-wrote seven of its nine songs), Popular Problems is saturated with wit and conscience. And while it’s not so much a music record as a soundtrack for Cohen’s poetry, the writing is refreshingly good. The lyrics help you through the often-annoying musical ad-ins, which seem to be attempting a cover up. He can’t sing any more, but he never really could. Like Dylan and Cash, no one ever turned to Cohen for his vocals.
Stand out tracks include opener ‘Slow.’ The song serves as a shrewd double entendre – a musician closing in on the end of his life, and an 80-year-old with bedroom ambitions. “I always liked it slow/I never liked it fast/With you it’s got to go/With me it’s got to last.” The second track ‘Almost Like The Blues’ is a remarkable feat of lyrical athleticism. “I’ve had the invitation/That a sinner can refuse/It’s almost like salvation/It’s almost like the blues.” Death is waiting in the wings of Popular Problems with mortal and spiritual disaster running throughout. ‘Samson in New Orleans’ mourns the town that was “Better than America” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and ‘A Street’ is a previously published poem regarding the streets that once ran before 9/11. However, it manages to avoid being depressing through guts and grace. As always, you find yourself holding your breath to hear not only what Cohen will say, but the way he will say it.
Probably the greatest accomplishment on the record is the lack track ‘You Got Me Singing.’ His capacity for reflection is enough to make you jealous. “You got me singing even though the world is gone.” Like a Beckett play, the album finds beauty in the muck, pays homage to all the dirty moments that make up a life. And in a move that secures his place in the musical stars, he ends the record with a reference to the most popular song of his career, “You got me singing the Hallelujiah song.” It’s an incredible nod to his own legacy – a legacy that now continues into its ninth decade. Through Popular Problems, Leonard Cohen reminds us that beauty doesn’t exist in spite of an ending, but because of it.