Age Before Beauty: Leonard Cohen Still Wrestles Age, Women, and Life In “Popular Problems”

Age before beauty, the idiom goes, and Leonard Cohen knows this full well. Beginning his career well into his late adolescence (Songs of Leonard Cohen was released 1967)  near-octagenarian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is back at it once again with “Popular Problems.” On this record more than ever, his husky vocal serves him well, coating songs such as “Almost Like The Blues” and “Slow” with the kind of Tom Waits-esque sonic rumble that displays both his age and experience. For the casual Cohen listener, Popular Problems functions much as its predecessor Old Ideas–as a comfortable and representative entry way into his discography. Where “Samson In New Orleans” is blissfully reminiscent of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” and “Almost Like The Blues” carries the lyrical cadence of “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” the tunes that make up Popular Problems show Cohen at his most refined.

Cover of "Field Commander Cohen: Tour of ...

Cover of Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979

The album’s production, with its seasoned session musicians (typical of Cohen’s career-spanning carousel of players) deftly highlight the sonic palate of the songs, allowing Cohen’s sing-speak (and precise lyrics) to shine centre stage. Although at times it sounds as if certain production choices (namely the questionable Mumford and Sons-esque chorus of “Did I Ever Love You”–a tacky bluegrass tablecloth on a sheet of pure marble) are flawed experiments at making contemporary Cohen’s sound, one has to remark that Cohen is open to experimentation this late in the game at all. The absolutely heartbreaking delivery in the verses of “Did I Ever Love You” remains more than enough to save the album from it’s own chimerical structure.

If Old ideas was to be Cohen’s last record, Popular Problems feels like an appropriate coda, that is, Cohen’s victory lap. However whereas Old Ideas felt like a succinct summation of his life’s work in songs, Popular Problems benefits from the opportunity for Cohen to further expand into this new, more confident era of songwriting. As critics have often noted, Cohen’s saving grace as a singer was that in the early days his songs were so masterfully written that his voice was almost an afterthought. Now, however, it seems that his vocal chords have caught up to his songwriting and suit him hand in glove. The mystic, dirge-like, monk-esque rumblings of “Slow” give way to the tantric, sexual morning voice of “Nevermind”. Cohen’s wry humour hasn’t aged a day, however. He takes self-deprecating to an art-form as he quips on “Almost Like The Blues”, “There’s torture and there’s killing / and there’s my bad reviews”. It’s nothing short of refreshing to see a legend of his kind still caught in the same anxious traps as artists half (or a quarter) his age; and at the end of “Popular Problems”, punning on the record’s title, Field Commander Cohen remains with us, to combat the problems, whether trite or deified, that plague us all.

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