Man of mercy
LEONARD COHEN Popular Problems Columbia ★★★★
Leonard Cohen turns 80 on September 21st. But if his body is gradually bending to time’s will, his mind is ticking along just fine.
This first album since Old Ideas, Cohen’s 2008 second coming (and his 13th album in total) is, like its predecessor, remarkable in so many ways that it’s a wonder he ever considered giving up the stage. Forced into touring after his business manager dipped into his bank account, Cohen has emerged as sagacious and warm, rather than the clichéd saturnine figure of long depiction.
He is also having fun in his own self-deprecating way. Typically, the first of the nine tracks is called Slow and playfully addresses age and sex: “It’s not because I’m old/It’s not the life I led/I always liked it slow/That’s what my momma said.”
His puckish sense of self strikes a more serious note on the single Almost Like the Blues, which links images of everyday horror to his guilt: “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”.
Cohen’s signature gravel pipes are contrasted as ever with soulful female backing vocals and softly seductive arrangements. Producer and co-writer Patrick Leonard has proved a strong partner. The melodies and arrangements settle into a more American groove than on Old Ideas, and Cohen sounds assured and engaged – his timing and tone are right on the money.
Cohen’s mastery and love of language (“a weekend on your lips, a lifetime in your eyes” goes one line) is evident. Themes include guilt and forgiveness; his Jewish heritage is also mapped, not uncritically, along with a deep spiritual longing. His horizons are wide and references sometimes oblique. But mercy and healing are a key part of the Cohen package. The balm of the lilting My Oh My is followed by the edgy Nevermind; the hymnic intensity of Born in Chains leads into the folky resolve of You Got Me Singing.
It’s an uplifting conclusion to an album that as the title infers, deals with the everyday in an extraordinary way. leonardcohen.com
Download: Slow, Nevermind, My Oh My