Leonard Cohen’s 13th studio album, Popular Problems, arrives two days after his 80th birthday, and it is a stunning testament to the singer’s rejuvenated strength in performance and his ongoing mastery of song structure. All of the characteristics that have defined Cohen’s long career are present here, the humor, the tongue-in-somebody’s-cheek sexuality, the longing spirituality. Cohen is America’s poet/prophet of the sacred and profane, and he delivers majestically on this brief but powerful album.
Cohen starts things off with a wink and a smirk in “Slow”, a paean to taking one’s time in the bedroom, offering a sly boast capable of making this week’s hottest freestylist stutter. Neither old nor dead, and ready for a second round, Cohen just needs a moment to “Let me catch my breath.” The light humor and braggadocio give way to condemnation in “Almost Like the Blues”. A darker humor (or humour, as in black bile) dominates this song, which offers a catalog of atrocities, only to be met by the consciously ironic conclusion, “It was almost like the blues.” The comparison is a damnation of our self-obsessed culture. The blues represents highly personal suffering; only the most self-centered observer of the kind of universal suffering described in the song could be so disconnected to make such a comparison. But such disconnection is easy for a culture sucking on the glass teat of the 24-hour cable news cycle. Cohen condemns a similar sort of self-centered hypocrisy in “Samson in New Orleans”. Here the tragedy of Katrina is clarified not as the storm itself but the indifference that typified this alleged Christian country’s response to the suffering left in the storm’s wake: “Was our prayer so / damn unworthy / The Son rejected it?”
Love and war have long served as popular problems for treatment in Cohen’s work, and they are often viewed as the same thing. “A Street” uses war metaphors to characterize a failed relationship of convenience. “Did I Ever Love You” presents Cohen’s passionate and ragged vocals echoed by a honky-tonk angel choir, answering his questions with his own questions. “Nevermind”, one of the album’s high points, offers a first-person narrative evocative of our War on Terror or the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. The nameless soldier narrating the song speaks of digging graves and sneaking across an unnamed border: “I live among you / Well disguised.” By the song’s conclusion we know that the graves are those of the speaker’s wife and children, but the question of his purpose and intentions while hiding are never made clear. “There’s truth that lives / And truth that dies,” he says, “I don’t know which / So never mind.” Is this victim of the war, this soldier of the other side (whichever side that is), content in his safety, or simply biding time for revenge? The moral ambiguity is intensified by the twining female vocals that meet the declaration, singing “Salaam”, the Arabic word for peace.
The album ends with Cohen embracing the sacred, first in “Born in Chains”, a personal call for redemption. In his most famous song, “Hallelujah”, Cohen sings “You say I took the name in vain / I don’t even know the name.” Here, Cohen slyly references that song, declaring that name is “Written on my heart / In burning Letters.” And counterpointing the dark satire of “Almost Like the Blues”, which condemns the many ways our culture promotes the personal over the collective, Cohen is careful, here, to clarify that redemption is and can only be a personal journey, one that takes place inside the self, and only by one’s unbidden choice. “I’ve hear the soul unfolds / In the chambers of its longing,” he sings, concluding “But all the Ladders / Of the Night have fallen / Only darkness now / To lift the Longing up.” That longing is lifted up in the album’s final song “You Got Me Singing”, which opens with a brightness of sound not heard elsewhere on the album, guided in particular by Alexander Bublitchi’s violin playing. “You got me singing / Even though the world is gone / You got me thinking / I’d like to carry on.” Rock music’s greatest apocalypticist has seen through to the other side, and he’s still willing to continue on whatever great journey awaits.
Produced by Patrick Leonard, also credited as co-writer for seven of the album’s nine songs for his musical arrangements, this is the most sonically varied album of Cohen’s 21st century output. Leonard’s jazz, soul, and gospel influenced settings flesh out the sound compared to the sometimes thin arrangements that characterized Sharon Robinson’s production on Ten New Songs and Dear Heather. Further, he inspires some of the most intense singing we’ve heard from Cohen in this decade, coaxing him beyond the talk-whisper vocals that have characterized his most recent work. Charlean Carmon, a voice actress and former American Idol background vocalist, and Dana Glover, a model and singer/songwriter who released a couple solo records in the early aughts, ably supply the characteristic angel choir vocals previously offered by Jennifer Warnes, Julie Christenson, and Perla Batalla on Cohen’s albums of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Popular Problems is an album that listeners will return to, not just for the poetic depth we’ve come to expect from Mr. Cohen, but also for the sonic variety and virtuosity of his accompanists.