Saturday, January 10, 2015

Leonard Cohen: Popular Problems (2014)


(Columbia)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Anything Leonard Cohen does at this point, following his return to touring, is a victory lap; 2012's lovely, ethereal Old Ideas would have made the perfect swansong to his recording career. Instead, he's followed it unexpectedly with a leaner record -- nine songs, under forty minutes -- that continues the triumph. Arranged and recorded (and even illustrated) similarly to Old Ideas, it marks several significant changes all the same, thus keeping the landscape wide open for a singer-songwriter who easily could have retired years ago now, but who seems deep down to hold the view that he's nowhere near finished. His peer and labelmate Bob Dylan still writes and records good music, but it's honestly hard to argue that Cohen is not currently still at his artistic peak. And that's astounding.

The time on the road has put Cohen's voice back in its raspiest mode, which actually makes his singing more idiosyncratic and compelling, and the lyrics he's chosen to develop into songs are meaner ("Did I ever love you? / Does it really matter?") and funnier ("There's torture and there's killing / and there's all my bad reviews"), the two parts of his personality most freely left behind by the Cult of "Hallelujah" and, hence, by the crowd-pleasing Ideas. Patrick Leonard's production is well in keeping with Cohen's musical eccentricities of the '80s and '90s; the pair wrap Cohen's incongruous vocals and those of his female cohorts around pseudo-country Muzak with canned, synthetic horns and strings. As on I'm Your Man and The Future, that oddly earnest appropriation of superficial modernity is a fascinating contrast to the songs themselves, and improves their communicative powers with its oblique beauty.

The best example of this is the gorgeous "Did I Ever Love You," which makes wildly unexpected use of programmed drums in a sort of clop-clopping raveup. But the melody is as classic and unadorned a feat as some forgotten gospel number; like "Nightingale" or "Going Home," it sings out with such refreshing directness as to invite an outpouring. Cohen's songwriting has always been best at its simplest, from "Stranger Song" to "I Can't Forget," and songs like that one, "My Oh My" and "You Got Me Singing" approach the simple power of a mere confession in their intimacy, all harshly honest -- their optimism never untempered by the burdens of aging, death and cynicism -- but elegiac.

Lyrically, Cohen's fixations are the same as ever (sex, God, death, war) but he expresses them like someone aware that he doesn't have all the time in the world and thus wishes not to stall on making his points, and conversely someone aware that he has yet to learn all that he needs to know. At 80, his clear-eyed maturity and grace are still staggering -- has he ever so plainly stated his philosophy as on the uncomfortable and witty "Almost Like the Blues"? Besides Yoko Ono, can you imagine any octagenarian but Cohen writing a song about sex as frank and funny as the instant-classic "Slow"? Can anyone else write a song that sounds simultaneously like a chronicle of a hiding war criminal and a paean to a broken marriage ("Nevermind")? And does anyone else make a sound like he and his team (not his band; he only uses them onstage) do on "A Street," the album's probable peak? That sound of him muttering away his lovely stanzas -- "You put on a uniform to fight the Civil War / You looked so good I didn't care what side you're fighting for" -- so perfectly controlled in tandem with his "angels" calling back every phrase?

No. It's his niche, it's unique, and it's the niche of someone who's still adaptable and vital half a century after he began this particular conversation. Collectively, it's enough to make a blackened heart open; enough to think of something ridiculous like the immortality of a true artist, of the passage of time itself losing its power and meaning. Or as the man himself puts it: "YOu got me wishing our little love would last / You got me thinking like those people of the past."

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