PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Leonard Cohen: Popular Problems

Cohen's 13th studio release offers nine powerful reflections on the sacred and the profane with characteristic mix of humor and longing.

Leonard Cohen

Popular Problems

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2014-09-23
UK RElease Date: 2014-09-22

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.