Leonard Cohen: Popular Problems

What we learned from Leonard Cohen’s new album, Popular Problems

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Popular Problems is Cohen’s 80th birthday present to himself. And to us.

How will you celebrate turning 80? With one of the finest albums of your career? Released just days after his landmark anniversary, Cohen’s magnificent new songbook is as good as anything in his half-century canon of classics.

Cohen remains mesmerised by the sacred mysteries of love and sex, even in his ninth decade.

From the smouldering late-night blues striptease Slow to the Biblical S&M allegory Born In Chains, Lenny remains a one-man weapon of mass seduction. Never mind that the narrators of these songs are caught “in the grip of sensory illusion” or wounded by “the sweet indifference some call love”, they still keep coming back for more punishment. Just like Cohen himself.

That Old Testament voice just keeps getting deeper and richer.

Forget Bob Dylan’s pockmarked rasp, listen to Cohen’s gloriously ravaged croak on Samson in New Orleans or his gravelled Tom Waitsian growl on Did I Ever Love You. Dry as prehistoric parchment, deeper than Mississippi mud, Lenny’s mighty bass-baritone voice now ranks alongside Louis Armstrong or Johnny Cash as a mighty instrument in its own right. It deserves its own UNESCO heritage status.

There is no humour more dry or dark than Cohen in cosmic comedian mode.

Casting a caustic eye around our hellish current climate of civil war, murder and famine on Almost Like The Blues, Cohen drops a wry piece of moral equivalence that punctures the egos of self-absorbed artists everywhere: “There’s torture and there’s killing and there’s all my bad reviews…” Funny. Like Samuel Beckett funny.

Even if you are an 80-year-old elder statesmen, you can still push boundaries.

Much of Popular Problems is classic late-period Cohen: elegantly sparse poems clothed in stripped-down folk, blues and gospel arrangements. But the sultry Nevermind is one of his most experimental tracks to date, a Middle Eastern-tinged funk groove which reimagines a love affair as a kind of Cold War espionage thriller.

Next time some critic sneers at older artists making a comeback purely for the paycheck, just consider the musical riches that Cohen’s money woes have produced.

Famously forced out of semi-retirement in 2008 after his pension fund was stolen by an ex-manager, Cohen’s financial calamity has been a windfall for everyone else. At 80, he is playing some of his greatest shows and making some of the finest music of his career. Popular Problems is just the latest chapter in this magisterial autumnal renaissance.

Stephen Dalton

Stephen Dalton has been writing about all things rock for more than 30 years, starting in the late Eighties at the New Musical Express (RIP) when it was still an annoyingly pompous analogue weekly paper printed on dead trees and sold in actual physical shops. For the last decade or so he has been a regular contributor to Classic Rock magazine. He has also written about music and film for Uncut, Vox, Prog, The Quietus, Electronic Sound, Rolling Stone, The Times, The London Evening Standard, Wallpaper, The Film Verdict, Sight and Sound, The Hollywood Reporter and others, including some even more disreputable publications.