Leonard Cohen: Popular Problems review – an octogenarian rejuvenated
Financial worries may be driving his comeback, but Leonard Cohen’s songs of despair have never sounded so full of life – and you can hear this new album in full here
http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/s ... bum-review
The Guardian, Thursday 18 September 2014
Leonard Cohen In uncharted territory … Leonard Cohen
It is hard to elicit goodwill for someone who stole £5m from a pensioner, but perhaps anyone who loves Leonard Cohen’s music owes his former manager Kelley Lynch a grudging debt of thanks. It’s strange to imagine now, but when Cohen’s 11th studio album, Dear Heather, was released a decade ago, it was widely received as his farewell. It wasn’t just that Cohen was 70 years old: everything about Dear Heather suggested a man in the process of disappearing from music. His voice had already left the building: only a ghostly whisper remained, and Sharon Robinson and Cohen’s partner Anjani Thomas were often more in evidence than the man whose name was on the sleeve. There was a certain finality about the lyrics, but the album itself seemed half-finished, as if Cohen was losing interest or had his mind elsewhere – quite possibly up Mount Baldy, at the Zen Buddhist retreat where he’d been ordained as a monk. Instead of complete songs, there were recitations of poems, not all of them by Cohen, set to vague jazz accompaniments. A 20-year-old live recording of a cover of Tennessee Waltz – taped off the radio, no less – was tacked on the end, as if to make up the numbers.
That, of course, was before it emerged that Lynch had embezzled most of the singer’s pension fund. Cohen and his associates have never made any bones about the fact that his subsequent work, not least the apparently never-ending touring, has been motivated by a need for cash, but no one seems to mind, possibly because few artists have ever done it for the money with quite the elegance and warmth that Cohen displays on stage, singing the songs that no longer earn him a cent in royalties. And whatever the initial incentive, being forced back to work seemed to spark Cohen’s creativity. A man who seemed to be running dry discovered he had much more to say musically and, moreover, that he was now broadcasting it from uncharted territory for rock music. Cohen turns 80 this weekend: few artists have continued writing and recording so late in their lives, and certainly no one as poetically gifted as Cohen has.
“The party’s over, but I’ve landed on my feet,” he sings at one juncture on Popular Problems, neatly summarising this ongoing state of affairs, and as on its 2012 predecessor, Old Ideas, you can hear everywhere on his 13th album the rejuvenating effect of what should have spelt disaster. An artist who 10 years ago could make finishing an album seem like a tough call now makes it sound effortless. Nothing here feels laboured: he can deliver songs as beautifully wrought as Samson in New Orleans – a depiction of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina – with a gorgeous understatement that only magnifies its impact: “And we who cried for mercy from the bottom of the pit/ Was our prayer so damn unworthy that the sun rejected it?”
Once wasted to a thin, papery sliver, his voice seems to have been bulked up by regular exercise.For a mercy, someone has clearly done what Sharon Robinson once sighingly concluded that she could not, and disabused Cohen of the notion that his songs are best accompanied by the kind of cheesy synthesiser and bum-tish drum-machine backing that is redolent of the provincial hotel bar and the working men’s club turn. Instead, the music, devised largely by producer Patrick Leonard – best known for having helped pilot Madonna’s albums between True Blue and Ray of Light, which gives us the improbable image of Leonard Cohen collaborating with the co-author of Hanky Panky – is sparse, urgent and diverse: there are gospel-infused organs, the chorus of Did I Ever Love You spins off into country, My Oh My arrives decorated with southern soul horns, Nevermind offers a curious collision of brooding, electric-piano-driven funk and keening female vocals.
As for what Cohen has to tell the world about life in your ninth decade, the short answer seems to be: you think about death a great deal. The Grim Reaper keeps making his presence felt, whether in New Orleans, on foreign battlefields or closer to home: the first thing you hear is Cohen contemplating his own mortality on Slow. But for all his description of the album’s tone as being one of “despair”, it feels anything but hopeless. Slow finds him pleading for more time with an oddly lubricious swagger: “Let me catch my breath,” he growls, “I thought we had all night”. In what has thus far proved the album’s most quoted line, he suddenly throws a joke into a stark description of the atrocities man inflicts on man: “There’s torture and there’s killing and all my bad reviews.” You laugh, not least because it suggests Leonard Cohen is possessed of a good memory: it’s a long time indeed since critics did anything other than try elbow each other out of the way to garland him with praise. And then you think: yeah, that’s probably exactly what it’s like. You start out sorrowfully reflecting on the state of humanity, bolstered by the wisdom of age, but end up sidetracked by some niggling personal slight from 40 years ago.
It ends with Cohen accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a down-home fiddle. It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine the song is meant as a backhanded compliment tossed his former manager’s way: “You got me singing even though the world is gone, you got me thinking I’d like to carry on.” That is apparently what Cohen intends to do, 80th birthday or not. He has talked of another album, of sharpening up the songs on Popular Problems over hundreds of gigs. What may well be the greatest case of needs must in rock history looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.