There are not many people celebrate their 80th birthday by releasing an album and there are even fewer that celebrate it by releasing the album of the year but Leonard Cohen has done just that.
Popular Problems is Cohen’s thirteenth album and like that clichéd old wine he gets better and better.
Checking in with nine songs and at just 36 minutes in length Popular Problems is a pure delight. From the opening bluesy Slow to the – whisper this – joyous up-tempo You Got Me Singing this is trademark Cohen. The humour, the solitude, the mortality, the social comment, the politics, the religious uncertainty and the sexual desires are all here as the coolest octogenarian in the world takes us on a trip in Cohenland.
Barring Born in Chains – that he wrote himself – the album is a joint collaboration with the man behind Madonna’s Ray of Light, Patrick Leonard. In fact it is thought that much of the musical diversity is down to Patrick Leonard as the album veers from blues, ballads, funk and folk before the bluegrass finale.
As can be expected – after Cohen’s last album Old Ideas released in 2012 – the musicianship is an exercise in sublime understatement while nobody in contemporary music uses backing vocalists to better effect. This coupled with the diversity of the sounds highlights Cohen’s rich soulful baritone and illuminates his wonderful words: None more so than in the gorgeous requiem Samson in New Orleans where he evocates the grief and anger felt in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
There are too many couplets – in every single song – to repeat here but the one most reviewers have picked up on is within Almost Like The Blues where Cohen sings: “There’s torture and there’s killing/And all my bad reviews,” hinting that his personal worries are of as much a concern of his as worldwide problems which while being pure Cohen if we are all being honest it would apply to us all.
They are after all popular problems and as long as Cohen is articulating them in a small way the world will be a better place. Financial worries led to Cohen returning to the studio and stage and while Old Ideas was a welcome return for the best-dressed man in music Popular Problems is simply a wonderful present for the rest of us.
Here’s to his next ten years…
Popular Problems is out now