Popular Problems/ Leonard Cohen
Label: Sony Music
QUITE clearly, Leonard Cohen defies the concept of growing old. The Canadian singer-songwriter turned 80 on September 21, and at an age when many of his contemporaries would have lost much of their compositional charm, he has produced one of the most remarkable albums of his career. His 13th release ‘Popular Problems’ is a worthy successor to his 2012 effort ‘Old Ideas’, and it’s another of those collections that keeps sounding better on repeated hearing.
‘Popular Problems’ has nine songs, and at less than 36 minutes, is rather short too. None of the tunes crosses the five-minute mark, and yet, they’re filled with so much depth that they seem much longer. Most important, Cohen’s voice seems to get deeper and even more haunting, with that chronic bronchitis growl that makes him so inimitable.
Like in most of his earlier work, the songs talk of love, sex, religion, politics, war, despair and depression, using some outstanding imagery. While one number ‘A Street’ has been co-written by Anjani Thomas, seven have been penned in partnership with Patrick Leonard. ‘Born In Chains’, which has been doing the live circuit for four years, is Cohen’s only exclusive piece of songwriting.
A highlight of the songs is the minimal use of orchestrations, with soft drum brushes, soothing violins, graceful horns and just-about-adequate organs playing pleasantly in the backdrop. The use of female choruses is a regular feature, as the back-up singers repeat the main lines either in isolation or at cross-harmony with Cohen’s voice. If one has to criticise something about this album, it has to do with the ordinariness of its cover artwork. The rest falls perfectly in place.
The singer is in form from the opening number ‘Slow’, singing “I’m slowing down the tune, I’ve never liked it fast, You wanna get there soon, I wanna get there last” in his trademark style. The second piece ‘Almost Like The Blues’ is a dark, anti-war lament, with the lines “There’s torture and there’s killing, And there’s all my bad reviews, The war, the children missing, Lord, it’s almost like the blues.”
On initial hearing, ‘Samson In New Orleans’ may sound like one of the album’s weaker spots, but that’s because it’s too trademark Cohen in tune and structure. Over a few hearings, this song about the Katrina aftermath impresses with its melancholic violin stretch and infectious back-up vocals. With its charming synthesiser line, ‘A Street’ impresses with the words “I cried for you this morning, And I’ll cry for you again, But I’m not in charge of sorrow, So please don’t ask me when.”
What’s amazing is the way the style of the songs changes as the album progresses. The piano-backed ‘Did I Ever Love You?’ is a hymn-like tune questioning the depth of a relationship, whereas ‘My Oh My” just has the right tinge of the blues, with Cohen altering the way he sings the main words remarkably. The other war-related song ‘Nevermind’ is one of the album’s strongest parts, as he sings, “I had to leave my life behind, I dug some graves you’ll never find, The story’s told with facts and lies, I have a name but never mind.” A funk blues backdrop and Arabic vocals give this piece its own distinctness.
On ‘Born in Chains’, Cohen gets into a gospel flavor, singing “I was born in chains but I was taken out of Egypt, I was bound to a burden, but the burden it was raised, Oh Lord I can no longer keep this secret, Blessed is the name, the name be praised.” With its charming violins and pleasant acoustic guitar, the concluding track ‘You Got Me Singing’ traverses country territory. Referring to his famous tune ‘Hallelujah’, Cohen sings, “You got me singing, Singing the Hallelujah hymn.”
Though Cohen has written some pathbreaking songs in his career, he hasn’t been too prolific for most part, sometimes giving gaps or seven or nine years between albums. But the heartening thing is that he’s come out with two great albums in the space of two years and a half. Both ‘Old Ideas’, reviewed earlier in this blog on April 30 2012, and ‘Popular Problems’ complement each other. Like wine, Cohen’s charm is increasing with age.
RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding