F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American life, but obviously that dictum doesn’t hold much weight for people who come from north of the 49th parallel judging by the phenomenal third act that Leonard Cohen is currently experiencing. With his newest album, Popular Problems, timed to release on his 80th birthday, it seems that the only thing that will stop Cohen’s creative surge is the drop of the final curtain. And I’m sure he’ll have plenty to report back to us while it’s coming down.
For Canadians, Leonard Cohen is old news. He’s been a star here since he released Let Us Compare Mythologies, his first book of poetry, in 1956. His reputation was solidified when he published Beautiful Losers, an experimental novel that was deemed pornographic by sectors of the press when it was released in 1966. He first achieved international recognition when his first record, Songs Of Leonard Cohen came out in 1967. It featured “Suzanne,” a song that—until “Hallelujah” became a hit decades after it was recorded in 1985—was the tune he was most closely associated with. It was an anthem that perfectly encapsulated the bohemian vibe of ‘60s Montreal and has long been a campfire classic.
Cohen’s career reignited in the late ‘80s when his music caught on with punk rockers and hipsters who related to the alienation many of his earliest songs expressed. His 1992 album, The Future, was an international success and tours in support of it were very well-attended. The inclusion of three songs from The Future on the soundtrack for Oliver Stone’s film Natural Born Killers propelled interest in Cohen’s work to an even higher level. All of the hard living that went hand-in-hand with the hard work promoting The Future took a toll on the 60-year-old Cohen, who retired from music in 1994 and went to live at Mt. Baldy Zen Monastery above Los Angeles for five years.
The story of how Cohen was robbed and swindled of his life’s savings while he lived in seclusion on Mount Baldy has been told many times and doesn’t bear repeating except to emphasize that most artists who found themselves in such a situation in their seventies might have resigned themselves to a modest retirement and a quiet life. For Cohen, it was the catalyst for embarking on a flurry of activity, and for the last seven years he and his band have toured the world endlessly and played hundreds of concerts to millions of people. Whatever financial necessity may have sparked this return to the road has long passed, and Cohen has obviously found his way again with his muse and music as can be seen by his increased activity in the recording studio. There were eight years between 2004’s Dear Heather and Old Ideas, a critically acclaimed album of new material that was released in 2012.
For many of Cohen’s fans, Old Ideas represented a solid return to form and made good on the promise of his recent world tours. But, as good as Old Ideas was, his newest release Popular Problems is a far better album overall. All of Cohen’s familiar themes are explored on nine new songs as the characters he sings of continue to jostle with desire and sin and report back from places and situations we’d rather not ever visit or experience. His is a frail universe full of nameless men, women waiting by windows, a place where Biblical language blends with pillow talk, and erotic come-ons already carry tinges of regret. More than ever, Cohen’s lyrics remind us of a time when poetry was a serious pursuit and toiling with meter and language was a noble undertaking.
Popular Problems is not nostalgic. Where many artists of his generation have reduced their outputs to slender approximations of what they once had to offer, Cohen is not resting on his reputation with his new work. Popular Problems is a relevant album not just because of the pertinent subject matter of the songs, which take a more sophisticated look at the state of the world than say Neil Young does with his newer songs like “Mother Earth.” Cohen’s relevance is achieved through his reinvention and the hard work he obviously dedicates towards refining his art; he has no interest in political or cultural sloganeering or playing towards the obvious sensitivities of his audience. His approach to writing has continued to develop over time.
Even though the lyrics of the songs on Popular Problems are replete with signs and symbols that have turned up in Cohen’s work since the ‘50s, they represent more than a simple lazy reshuffling of clichés from his heyday. Instead, the fine-tuning of language and imagery and slight shifts in narrative perspective carried in the songs indicate the building of a lexicon and the creation of a poetic universe. One of the most interesting developments as Cohen has aged is that the dark imagery and situations of his songs have gradually taken on more wit and humor. Even when he sings lines like “I’ve dug some graves that you’ll never find,” there’s a new bounce in his voice that reminds us not to take life too seriously. After all, a hundred years from now, we’ll all be dead. There’s no obvious “Suzanne” or “Hallelujah” on Popular Problems, but songs like “Slow,” “Almost Like The Blues” and “A Street” are as good as anything Leonard Cohen has ever written or sung. With new songs that are every bit as dark and offhand as “The Future” or “Everybody Knows,” it’s obvious when listening to Popular Problems that Cohen still takes satisfaction in looking at the trouble that’s brewing just beneath the surface of modern life.
Patrick Leonard, Cohen’s musical foil, is back in the producer’s seat for Popular Problems and much of the credit for the album’s full sound is likely due to his participation. In the past, Cohen’s albums were often very minimalist affairs with skeletal arrangements played on bizarre or antiquated instruments. (Has an old Cassio keyboard ever sounded more perfectly creepy than it does on “Tower of Song”?) This time around, perhaps influenced by the experience of touring with a large band for the past several years, Cohen’s music is fuller and deeper than it has ever been on previous studio albums. The doom and gloom reflected in the lyrics of songs like “Nevermind” and “Born in Chains” is offset—and somehow strengthened—by the rich musical score that accompanies his voice. The warm organ riffs and swooping Stax-y horns sections that bolster “My Oh My” are similarly uplifting. Musically speaking, Cohen’s never sounded half as good as he does all the way through Popular Problems.
To say that Popular Problems is a great album for a guy his age is to do it a disservice. It is precisely because Leonard Cohen is the age he is that Popular Problems is so good. Like Walt Whitman, or Tu Fu or Ryokan before him, Cohen’s work has continued to improve as he’s aged. Popular Problems is a mature work that could only be created after a lifetime spent in art, at a point when the search for the “holy” and the “beautiful” have been reconciled with human frailty. It’s an album in which the artist acknowledges the appreciation his work has received and the good fortune that has been bestowed on him. You can hear the gratitude in his voice when he confesses on “You Got Me Singing,” the album’s closer, “You got me thinking that I’d like to carry on/You got me singing /Even though it all looks grim/You got me singing the hallelujah hymn.” I don’t think there are many people who wouldn’t agree that that’s not such a bad legacy to leave behind. Popular Problems is a fine addition to that legacy. At 80 years old, Leonard Cohen is just beginning to hit his stride.