BY James WF Roberts
So we all know the story by now, Leonard Cohen had pretty much retired and went off to live the life of Zen Buddhist, well semi-retired, what true artist can really retire at any age? His former lover and financial manager Kelley Lynch (not the actress Kelly Lynch); legal action ensued Cohen was the victim of harassment and Lynch’s stalking and death threats etc…etc…etc…and ever since Cohen has been revitalised and become more relevant than he has been in years. I had the pleasure of seeing him in action at Rod Laver Arena in 2013. 2012 he released Old Ideas, not my most favourite of his works. But, in 2014 he released Popular Problems…and WOW!
This is an album of harmonic disharmony. Of quiet introspection, thunderous anger, sexy grooves and powerful imagery.
A solid and rhythmic, down and dirty arpeggio, makes your foot start tapping. The gruff, old voice of Cohen, doing his best Waits impression, begins in his usual sing-speak style, I'm slowing down the tune/I never liked it fast…..“It’s not because I’m old/ It’s not what dying does/ I always liked it slow/ Slow is in my blood.”
Slow, is the deep breath before the plunge in Leonard Cohen’s latest album, Popular Problems—and he is hitting his straps in this album, stronger and darker than he has for a very a long time. There’s a joyful sleaziness to this track…it’s basically saying why race to the end, when we can fuck til dawn?
The bright bluesiness of Slow, soon moves into Almost Like the Blues, dark emotive, passionate, melancholic, an almost fin de siecle style song, an anthem, a requiem for modern life. The piano and rhythm introduction of this track reminds me of Nick Cave’s, As I Sat Sadly By Her Side. The song is full of references to civil war, ethnic cleansing, atheism, a great un-nerving despair of the modern age, obsession, lost love, decaying spirituality. Cohen is back in form superbly in this album, especially in this track, it harks back to other previous masterpieces like Democracy, First We Take Manhattan; and the two brilliant Cohen tracks on Natural Born Killers, Waiting for a Miracle and the future—I always think Cohen is at his best when he is channelling both sympathetic viewer and doomsday prophet, if not the devil himself.
“I saw some people starving/There was murder, there was rape/Their villages were burning/They were trying to escape/I couldn’t meet their glances/I was staring at my shoes/It was acid, it was tragic/It was almost like the blues”.
However, Cohen’s wry self-mocking sense of humour is never far from anything he does. In this song he is using all of the weapons of his still unbelievable poetic arsenal, in the middle of this track we get another brilliant Woody Allen-esc piece of self-mockery, after a dark display of violence: “There’s torture and there’s killing/And there’s all my bad reviews/The war, the children missing/Lord, it’s almost like the blues”
Cohen is still waging war on his own identity, stripping back the curtain of failed love affairs, seeking truth like he usually does. But, there is an anger in his songs that he usually shows a little more subtly. Born In Chains; is another masterstroke, another modern Solomon-like psalm of the plight of the Jews and dare I say anyone who is oppressed.
“I was born in chains but I was taken out of Egypt/I was bound to a burden, but the burden it was raised/Lord I can no longer keep this secret/Blessed is the name, the name be praised”
Cohen constantly uses romantic relationships as a metaphor for civil war and vice-versa, and here again he is at the top of his game. I have always found it amazing that so many people don’t seem to understand the sensuality and the sexuality in Cohen’s work. In fact even his style of delivery, usually in a very solid couplet form, that always reaches a predictable yet still surprising satisfying end-rhyme constantly has physicality as it rolls off the tongue.
This album is full of popular problems, (yes, I went there), and yet it is not preachy. Cohen is doing what a great artist does, he poses questions, he shows conflicted and contradictory realities, but he doesn’t try to answer any of the questions he asks. Maybe he is leaving that up to all of us….this is not just self-indulgent re-hashing of ideas from a once great now tired artist, (cough…cough Bob Dylan doing Frank Sinatra….yes that has really happened…I will be crucified for this line but, I don’t care. It just proves Dylan never really stopped smoking the green).
Great artists are always looking for new things to do, it is not just searching for relevance again, it is proving a point to yourself and to everyone else. Just look at sir Paul McCartney’s latest track with Kayne West and Rhiannia ( I so thought I was stoned when I read that on twitter and so many of West’s fan thinking he was such a nice guy giving an oldie like Macca a break for his first hit track…google it…I am not making this up).
Some other great tracks on this album include Never Mind (which has a section sung in Arabic) which I feel tells of the disheartening complacency of the strife in Israel and in Syria; well pretty much anyone in conflict right now. And the soul-searching, embittered love song, Did I ever Love you. Cohen has many elements to his work and to his ideas. I have always respected his work and his ideas more than I have a lot of other people in the spotlight, say like Bono or Geldof; he doesn’t ram his message down your throat he lets his art speak for him—albeit sardonically and often ambiguously but that is what good art is. He is not just a balladeer, or folky protest singer, a gospel singer or a jilted blues singer, respected poet or controversial novelist—he is more than the sum of his parts, as we all are. This album is probably the best exemplar of his talents he has revealed to the world for a very long time. It is amazing what constant world touring over the last few years, to retrieve his lost earnings has done to his song writing. We should all be so lucky to be still as powerful and on our game is as Cohen is at 80 years of age.
Buy this album. Download it. Watch it. Have a listening party…do whatever you can but if you have never heard of Cohen besides the fact that everyone tries to be like him and rips off Hallelujah—listen to this album now. And then do a retrospective listen to all of his other great works, in fact listen to all of his music and work read his poems, The Book Of Longing and his controversial and very sexy novel Beautiful Losers. Cohen is one of the 20th century artists people need to know and absorb—forger Bob Dylan and Neil Young, Allen Ginsberg and Leonard Cohen is all you need.