Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems [TrackList follows] – Columbia/Sony Music 888750142917, 35:55 [9/22/14] ****:
(Leonard Cohen – vocals; Joe Ayoub – bass; Alkexandru Bublitchi – violin; Charlean Carmon, Donna De Lory, Dana Glover – backing vocals; James Hurrah – guitar; Patrick Leonard – keyboards, producer; Brian Macleod – drums)
Multitasker Leonard Cohen released his latest song collection, Popular Problems, just two days after this 80th birthday. Cohen’s six-decade career has made him one of the leading songwriters of the post-war years, a poet, an author, a visual artist (drawings, paintings, etc.) and a gracefully-aging icon who continues to influence millions with his carefully-crafted lyrics and deep, baritone voice. The nine-track, 36-minute Popular Problems is Cohen’s 13th record, and is a relatively prompt follow-up to 2012’s Old Ideas. That set had Cohen tackling typical concerns such as death, faith, longing and the impermanence of man. Popular Problems does the same, with superior instrumental results and heightened, pinpointed poetry. Popular Problems was issued as a single CD and as a CD/LP combo pack. This review refers to the single CD.
Bluesy opener “Slow” is steeped in a modern rural standpoint reinforced by producer Patrick Leonard’s soulful, electric piano, Brian Macleod’s secure drums and a bit of RnB horn. Cohen intones, “I’m slowing down the tune, I never liked it fast, you want to get there soon, I want to get there last,” and lets his romantic partner know, “It’s not because I’m old, it’s not the life I’ve led, I always liked it slow, that’s what my mama said.” Leonard delivers his deadpan lines in an astute, throaty way, and re-emphasizes his symbolic wordplay when he expresses: “All your turns are tight, let me catch my breath, I thought we had all night.” Cohen also goes subjective on “Did I Ever Love You,” where his cadenced vocalizing retains a restrained reverberation, although his half-spoken lilt provides weightier bearing to his soldered lyrics about his omission of feeling. The arrangement moves from piano-fronted folk to a gospel tint and then to an unexpected, country breakdown and then loops back. Piano, acoustic guitar, violin, and the ubiquitous backing vocals give prominence to Leonard’s cynical, bare verses about loss and love.
Cohen has a gift for personalizing the general and making the personal seem universal. He combines both during “Almost like the Blues,” where he regards globally-communal events (i.e., popular problems) alongside his own travails. Cohen looks outward and reports, “There’s torture and there’s killing,” but wistfully conveys, “And there’s all my bad reviews.” Only Cohen could use a basic, 12-bar theme (expertly underscored by hand percussion) to effectively contrast images of large-scale violence with worry over what critics might say about his creative output. Like Bob Dylan before him, Cohen insists the stories in the news affect us directly. The funereal march which permeates “Samson in New Orleans” accentuates the misery during and after Hurricane Katrina. Alkexandru Bublitchi’s beautiful, tender violin solo articulates a depth of sensitivity, solace and unmitigated antipathy, which Cohen matches with socio-political text tethered by religious questioning, “And we who cried for mercy, from the bottom of the pit, was our prayer so damn unworthy, the Son rejected it?” Cohen digs deeper into veiled brutality, open lies and comprehensive betrayals on the lightly funky “Nevermind,” a sweeping declamation where everyone is duplicitous to what unfolds, from blood-drenched desert to riotous American cities. Bass-heavy, electric keys and hand percussion generate a gaunt, edgy funk foundation, while Donna De Lory’s occasional, Arabic chanting imparts a ghostly juxtaposition to Cohen’s cutting indictments.
Spirituality and faith have pervaded many of Cohen’s exceptional moments. His hymnal “Hallelujah” is considered one of his finest achievements and was memorably covered by Jeff Buckley. He steps close to those heights on the gospel tune, “Born in Chains,” where Cohen deftly explores the tale of the Biblical Exodus while also signifying his Zen Buddhist training and Jewish upbringing. While Cohen shares his thoughts, the backing chorus supplies a delicate, psychological support. On the optimistic, country-tinged end piece “You Got Me Singing,” Cohen postulates that hope and possibility may just get us by: “You got me singing even though the world is gone. You got me thinking I’d like to carry on.” It’s an uninhibited, encouraging exit which proves, despite the problems we all face, we can confront them with conviction and devotion.
TrackList: Slow; Almost like the Blues; Samson in New Orleans; A Street; Did I Ever Love You; My Oh My; Nevermind; Born in Chains; You Got Me Singing.