Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems

Wayne Robins

By Wayne Robins

on 09.23.14 in Reviews

At 80 years old, Leonard Cohen’s voice is worn down to a slow, steady rumble, but it’s not a problem: It’s the solution. Cohen once said, “I always thought I could tell the truth about a song,” and on Popular Problems, a handful of songs are as fierce and honest as the best in his nearly-half-century repertory. The new album is a collaboration with Patrick Leonard, one of a group of producers who worked on several tracks with Cohen just two years ago on the first-rate Old Ideas. The new album is better: leaner, less orchestral, more fluid. Leonard is as valuable to Cohen as he was to Madonna on her biggest hits, including “Like a Prayer,” which wouldn’t be a bad title for this album, either. Whether in blues or hymns, Cohen’s songs are an ongoing conversation with a merciful god.

As fierce and honest as the best in his nearly-half-century repertory

“Samson in New Orleans” could be a Biblical parable about Hurricane Katrina; “Born in Chains,” arranged by Leonard with understatement and humility, echoes Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” while “You Got Me Singing,” the closing song of redemption, even gives a salute to Cohen’s signature tune, “that hallelujah” hymn.

The bluesier tunes, such as “Almost Like the Blues,” “Slow” and “A Street,” give a funky underlay to the dualities at the core of Cohen’s lifelong spiritual quest. The struggle between darkness and light, war and peace, truth and lies, ego and soul are all leavened by Cohen’s luminous wit. Most memorable may be “Nevermind,” adapted from a 2005 standalone poem by Cohen. What’s the song about? It could be a meditation on warfare; or a lament for the destruction of the sacred Jewish Second Temple. Maybe it’s about the spiritual nature of marriage. Maybe, considering Cohen’s years spent in near silence at a Buddhist monastery in search of relief from depression, if not nirvana, “Nevermind” ponders the restless soul of Kurt Cobain. (A new line not in the original poem: “I walk among you/ in disguise”). On the other hand, the straightforward lyrics and country styling of “Did I Ever Love You” cry out for a cover by Carrie Underwood or Dolly Parton. Which would be just another feather in the still-relevant songwriter’s fedora.