January 19, 2020

Leonard Cohen’s Triumphant “Problems”

The mere release of “Popular Problems,” two days after Leonard Cohen’s 80th birthday last month, is remarkable in and of itself. (How many 80-year-old sex symbols and style icons are there?) But it also caps a decade in which Cohen conquered troubling neuroses and fears to mount worldwide tours that were invocations, convocations and spiritual gatherings, not to mention money-makers, that returned Cohen, who’d been swindled out of his lifesavings, to financial security. His is one of the more amazing runs in music history.

Nomen est omen. The name determines the life. In Cohen’s case, he has become the priest, and not just for a cadre of followers around the world; he is also a seeker, a pilgrim ever struggling to find satori — in wine, drugs, women, in isolation and among the world, in words and in song.

“Popular Problems” finds Cohen’s baritone deepened, his voice more raspy, but each word distinct, each phrase launched like an arrow at a target. The accompaniments, produced by Patrick Leonard, are spare — piano, violin, a chorus of back-up singers, digitalized beats that are melodic in contrast to Cohen’s own probing lyrics.

This may be my favorite collection since 1988’s “I’m Your Man.” It is about optimism in the face of age, war, terrorism and the ongoing challenges of love. Cohen opens with “Slow,” a sly declaration of style over age, singing “It’s not because I’m old / It’s not the life I led / I always like it slow / That’s what my momma said.”

“Slow,” however, is no oldster’s apologia, but rather a credo akin to slow cooking, or slow networking, an acknowledgement that slow and mindful is how to savor life — a feat Cohen has spent a lifetime pursuing.

A decade ago, Cohen was ready to retire. He had become overwhelmed by a fear of disappointing his live audiences that he could not go on stage. Then, after becoming a victim of embezzlement forced him back to work, Cohen took up a tour so arduous — filled with three-hour shows each night — a tour so powerful, so joyous, so satisfying, that in just three years, Cohen earned his way back to financial stability. “Popular Problems” is a capstone to the artist’s triumph over his own demons. In “A Street,” he sings, “The party’s over / But I’ve landed on my feet / I’ll be standing on this corner / where there used to be a street.”

The nine songs on “Popular Problems” present meditations on Jewish heritage replete with biblical imagery (“Born in Chains”), and applies that imagery to Hurricane Katrina (“Samson in New Orleans”), love and love lost (“My Oh My,” “Did I Ever Love You”) and war (“Almost Like the Blues”) and songs that combine them all (“Nevermind”), tackled with both seriousness and self-deprecating humor. As he sings in “Almost Like the Blues,” “There’s torture and there’s killing / There’s all my bad reviews / The war, the children missing / It’s almost like the blues.”

One cannot read the lyrics on “Popular Problems” without appreciation for the zen of Cohen: His words are heavy with meaning, with counterpoints of humor, irony or cynicism; there’s meter to his lines and, occasionally, a clever rhyme. His lyrics present a man at home with his past and with his cultural tradition. He sings, “My father says I’m chosen / My mother says I’m not / I listened to their story / Of the Gypsies and the Jews / It was good, it wasn’t boring / It was almost like the blues.” He even ends his album on a declaration of optimism as plain as it is direct, “You Got Me Singing.”

“You got me singing / Even tho’ the news is bad / You got me singing/ The only song I ever had … You got me thinking / I’d like to carry on.”

Rave on, Leonard Cohen. Happy birthday, and many more. Eighty is but a stepping stone in your Tower of Song.

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