Leonard Cohen Popular Problems

[Columbia; 2014]

Styles: gospel, love, humor, death, light, darkness, war
Others: the great agéd songwriters of the modern age

Everything Leonard Cohen does becomes Leonard Cohen. I mean that both ways. From his early, eerie folk songs to I’m Your Man’s so-of-its-time synthesized beats, horns, and keys, Cohen has proven that his voice, both literal and artistic, is capable of taking control of perhaps any musical context and raising his leathern flag upon its soil. To witness Cohen’s masterful absorbing, processing, and unifying of genre in practice, see 2009’s Live In London, a sprawling example of the bard’s ability to smooth out the differences throughout his entire discography, creating, as if for just one night, an essential Leonard Cohen. But even listening to Cohen’s albums as they were originally recorded, taking into account the changes in voice, fashion, and life, what one finds is an absolutely singular songwriter and singer.

Popular Problems, his 13th studio album, has everything of which a latter-day Cohen album is popularly known to be composed: the amelodic, magical croak of Cohen’s own finely aged voice; the hyper-melodic shine of his singers, who have become as integral to Cohen’s project as he himself; a loose, blurring approach to genre and tone. The album seems to be of the same make as 2012’s Old Ideas; both are relaxed in their dedication to definite genre, and both humbly display the wisdom one would expect from an icon like Cohen. Even their titles comprise the interlocking halves of some private mantra or joke, some defining force behind Cohen’s recent inspirations: “Old Ideas, Popular Problems.” The Old Ideas, still Popular Problems, seem to be the things Cohen has always written about: sex, god, art, mystery, society.

Although religion and the divine have forever been important to Cohen’s songs, just as important as his inimitable humor and wit, Popular Problems feels particularly charged with the spirit of gospel. Cohen’s spirituality is a reverence of a god based in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, but which, like his approach to music, finds life in other traditions as well (Buddhism, most obviously). “Born in Chains” is the most apparently rooted in gospel music, but songs like “Nevermind” and “Almost Like The Blues” are built around images of the horrors of (holy?) war. The scent of Armageddon is palpable. One finds in these songs a vivid look into the spirit of what our world is facing today. Private suffering is public suffering. Cohen’s is a voice of compassion and dread, fused inevitably with a wry smile at the always changing, unchanging world.

Leonard Cohen is a treasure, everyone. His has always been a somehow quiet superstar career, but I hope those of us who know only “Hallelujah” will take this album, on the occasion of his 80th year, as an opportunity to appreciate the gift that his life has been to the art of our culture. Who else could release an album of such religious and social responsibility, but also place “Slow” — effectively a “fuck you” to the speed, self-importance, and mania of our age — at the beginning? Let’s listen to him. Take it easy, know yourself, get there last.

Links: Leonard Cohen - Columbia

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