Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems (Columbia)

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By Roy Trakin:

“You want to get there soon/I want to get there last,” drawls this ever-unlikely ladies’ man, once again toying deadpan with the notion of orgasm as apocalypse in “Slow,” the aptly named double- and triple-entendre opener.

Not since Johnny Cash’s late-period Rick Rubin albums has an aging artist so confirmed his voice, and enlarged his creative footprint, in old age. Closing in on his 80th birthday this week (September 21, to be exact), the raspy-voiced troubadour caps one of the most remarkable artistic, not to mention financial, comebacks in history with his 13th studio album, which remains true to what got him here in the first place – a literary sensibility, an ability to tell stories, with self-effacing irony, embracing both the spiritual and the sensual, the sacred and profane, sometimes in the very same line.

He does the same thing here, with the able help of one-time Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, who locates the sweet spots in Cohen’s gravelly gravitas, mingling the biblical and the present-day Sodom and Gomorrahs on tongue in-cheek plaints like “Almost Like the Blues,” where he jokingly conflates “torture and killing” with “my bad reviews,” before admitting, “My father says I’m chosen/My mother says I’m not.”

Unlike fellow gargling poet-singer Dylan, Cohen has figured out the best way to utilize his croak, plugging in his usual soothing female choir to make his gruffness that much more palatable. Serving a similar purpose is Alexandro Bublitchi’s violin playing – equal parts mournful Eastern European Jewish diaspora (as in the post-Katrina lament, “Samson in New Orleans”) and country bluegrass (the uncharacteristically up-tempo “Did I Ever Love You” and the hymnal finale, “You Got Me Singing”) — as does Donna DeLory’s kirtan chanting in “Nevermind.”

“The party’s over/But I landed on my feet,” claims Cohen, less in victory, than in avoiding defeat, in his 9/11 meditation, “A Street,” representing the ultimate tortoise/hare story of slow and steady winning the race. He liberates himself from the shackles in “Born in Chains,” a gospel-tinged organ helping segue from Exodus to a song of ultimate, benign acceptance, offering what amounts to a benediction. “Ah, but all the ladders of the night have fallen/Just darkness now, to lift the longing up.”

The man has the soul of someone in his prime, with the wisdom only nearing the end of life can bring. Last one standing indeed.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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