Thinking about an introduction to my review of Popular Problems, released last month to coincide with Leonard Cohen’s 80th birthday, I’m drawn to back to what I wrote in 2012 at the release of Old Ideas, when Leonard was but a kid of 77:
“The songs of Leonard Cohen have been an important part of my life since 1968, when – like almost everyone in Montreal (or, at least, English-speaking Montreal) into music and/or poetry – I sat down with his newly-released first LP, Songs of Leonard Cohen, a masterwork of songwriting. I lost myself in Leonard’s voice, his music and his words on that album. Especially the words. I’ve been listening to those songs, over and over again, and to the songs on every album he’s released since, and I still find layers of meaning and new ways to interpret so many of them. A well-established man of letters, a poet and novelist, who was well into his 30s before recording that first album, Leonard has never been a simple singer-songwriter churning out ephemeral pop music.
“Even the songs on Leonard’s minor albums like Death of a Ladies Man or the somewhat uneven Dear Heather have kept me enthralled. And I’ve stayed enthralled when listening, over and over again, to albums like I’m Your Man built around mechanical-sounding, programmed keyboards, an approach to music-making I generally loath and have no time for in the hands of almost anyone but Leonard Cohen.
“Curiously, despite using variations on that pre-programmed keyboard approach on much of his recorded work since 1988, his concert tours in that same period have featured ensembles of world-class musicians and harmony singers and impeccable arrangements.”
Leonard was already an established poet for more than a decade before he emerged as a songwriter and it occurs to me as I’ve listened and re-listened to the songs on Popular Problems that it is Leonard the poet as much as Leonard the songwriter that we’re listening to. Many of them are sung in a way that suggests recitation as much as singing and some of them have musical accompaniments that bolster the singing/recitation with pulse or heartbeat rather than melody.
And the songs, for the most part, are not narratives whose meanings are clear. For example, in “Nevermind,” he is singing about the aftereffects of a war – but so much is unclear. There are allusions to spies and refugees, but are they literal? Figurative? There’s a haunting repeated passage from one of the back-up singers that sounds like it is in Arabic which suggests the Middle East – but that certainly doesn’t narrow down which war he might be singing about.
Among the most interesting songs is “Born in Chains,” a prayer-like meditation on the biblical legend of the Jewish Exodus from slavery in Egypt, and on faith lost and then found again. It is a song that Leonard has said he worked on for 40 years – but is that statement an allusion to the 40 years the Children of Israel spent wandering in the desert following the Exodus.
Another is “Samson in New Orleans,” a further deliberation on the city of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – perhaps a continuation of what I believe he began with “Banjo” on Old Ideas.
In the final song, “You Got Me Singing,” Leonard again sounds like a folksinger in what could be a love song, or a prayer, or even a post-apocalyptic meditation.
Despite that pre-programmed keyboard approach that Leonard (and producer Patrick Leonard who composed the music for seven of the nine songs) uses on several of the tracks, Popular Problems is yet another compelling masterwork. These are songs I fully expect will continue to reveal more layers of meaning with every hearing.