‘You wanna get there soon, I wanna get there last’. From Popular Problems’ opener ‘Slow’, this is without doubt a maxim Leonard Cohen has always lived by and at the age of eighty, he continues to add to a musical legacy which is certain to outlast most. Cohen’s latest release sees him sticking with the core themes that have always permeated his writing, as the typically oxymoronic title suggests. The uneasy and complex marriages between the dichotomies of freedom and safety, love and lust, sin and salvation all remain prevalent in this recent work, as with his earlier records. The inherently abstract nature of these topics coupled with the genius of Cohen’s poetry means there’s no danger of him simply covering old ground.
As should always be the case with a Cohen record, the musical arrangements on Popular Problems are there to accommodate and create a suitable ambiance around the main instrument of delivery; Cohen’s voice. The rough, rasping murmur continues to purr more and more beautifully with age and is on fine form here. Nevertheless the instrumentation on Popular Problems should not be overlooked. As on his previous record Old Ideas, Cohen teams up with Patrick Leonard, who along with producing the record, co-wrote many of the songs with Cohen. Leonard’s arrangements are among some of the best from any Cohen record to date, drawing from a wide variety of jazz, blues, funk, soul, country and gospel influences while consistently managing to capture the sentiment of Cohen’s nuanced lyrics.
Popular Problems’ most engaging tracks often find Cohen reflecting upon devastation, the likes of which he so ominously prophesied himself on 1992’s The Future. Although characteristically cryptic in its commentary on the event, ‘A Street’ was written shortly after 9/11 and contains lyrical gems such as ‘I see the ghost of culture, with numbers on its wrist’ and ‘I know the burden’s heavy, as you wheel it through the night. Some people say it’s empty, but that don’t mean it’s light’. These are simply lines only Cohen can write. ‘Samson in New Orleans’ reflects on the tragedy of hurricane Katrina with typically bold biblical metaphor. When Cohen passionately croons ‘She was better than America’, he never quite makes it clear whether he is referring to New Orleans or the hurricane itself. The heaviness of such tracks is tempered by Cohen’s deadpan humour; ‘There’s torture and there’s killing. And there’s all my bad reviews’ he sings dryly on album highlight Almost like the Blues. There are also more laid back tracks such as Slow and My Oh My, which manages to give so much weight to the simple rumination, ‘Held you for a little while. My, oh, my, oh, my’.
Some tracks are admittedly weaker. ‘Nevermind’ and ‘Did I Ever Love You?’ both contain hints of Cohen profundity but the former seems to drag under the plodding synth backing and both contain fairly unnecessary and slightly annoying oddities, such as the snippets of an Arabic peace song on ‘Nevermind’ and the abrupt switches from plaintive piano to jangling country hoedown on ‘Did I Ever Love You’.
Nevertheless, on the whole, Popular Problems is vintage Cohen; carefully crafted, paradoxical poetry, delivered with seamless elegance. As Cohen himself waggishly hints on album closer You Got Me Singing, for many of us, not least Cohen himself, it has proven a blessing in disguise that his ex-manager robbed him of millions of pounds from his personal fortune, forcing him to resume touring and recording for financial reasons in 2005. As a consequence, Cohen has discovered he’s got a lot more still to say and we’d all be fools not to listen.