Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems, album review: Simple songs with a sharp lyrical blade

Tracks to download: Slow; Almost Like The Blues;  Nevermind; Born In Chains

Andy Gill
Friday 12 September 2014 22:53
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Leonard Cohen performing in New York in 2012
Leonard Cohen performing in New York in 2012

Some people never grow up; others seem to have been born old.

Among rock musicians, the former predominates to an alarming degree, while the most obvious case of the latter is surely Leonard Cohen; but then, even by the time of his debut album he was already a good 10 years older than his contemporaries, and it showed. But what’s fascinating about Cohen is how his popularity has increased as he has aged: it’s as if he’s become a beacon for a generation, rewarded for testing untrodden territory for us all.

What is remarkable is how he has retained such good humour, even while surveying the tide of contemporary wretchedness. Released to coincide with his 80th birthday, Popular Problems – note the drolly contradictory title – finds his agreeable baritone growl applied as usual to romantic disappointment and political venality with vivid, jolting metaphors (“I see the ghost of culture, with numbers on his wrist”) cutting to the quick.

Elsewhere the bitterness is spiked with Cohen’s characteristically wry, mordant humour – most notably the litany of ghastliness in “Almost Like The Blues” that includes “there’s torture, and there’s killing, and there’s all my bad reviews”. Though frankly, you have to search hard for a bad one these days.

The customary religious imagery prevails throughout, with salvation sought for unspecified sins, and sensuality strained through scripture: there’s even a reference to “the hallelujah hymn” which adds a personal frisson to the closing “You Got Me Singing”. But for an old geezer, he knows how to keep the listener on their toes, purely through lyrical cunning.

Musically, the songs are deceptively simple, employing a pared-down arrangement formula that pairs bluesy organ and electric piano with the female backing chorus that’s become a staple of the Cohen sound, all taken at a relaxed tempo that rarely rises above a gentle trot. As he observes in “Slow”, “You wanna get there soon – I wanna get there last”. And make it last, too.

Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems

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