Sunday 19 January 2020

Leonard Cohen's Popular Problems - from the coolest octogenarian in music, and beyond

Leonard Cohen Popular Problems (Columbia)

Leonard Cohen is largely known for his sombre songwriting, but his new album is celebratory, adventurous and vivid
Leonard Cohen is largely known for his sombre songwriting, but his new album is celebratory, adventurous and vivid

As the clock ticks towards midnight, I add my voice to the chorus. "Happy birthday, Leonard," we sing.

After today, the Canadian crooner joins a unique fraternity and now qualifies as one of the world's coolest octogenarians.

WB Yeats once pleaded: "I pray . . . that I may seem, though I die old, a foolish, passionate man."

Leonard, poet of passion, certainly sings "a lasting song". And after a lifetime of scratching out epiphanies he has a handle on our shared condition.

In London this week, at a salon to unveil this new studio album, he told guests: "The manual of living with defeat is to acknowledge that everyone suffers. Everyone has to struggle for self-respect and significance. The first step is to recognise that your struggle is everyone else's struggle . . . And yeah, I'm a closet optimist."

That someone in the music industry should be asked for answers to questions of metaphysics would have been unthinkable before Leonard came along. Back then the answer might have been: "Get you someone really to pull the wool with you . . . Wooly Bully."

Curiously, by the time the great Sam the Sham first began wearing a turban, Leonard already had three well-received collections of poetry and a novel published. When Suzanne launched Cohen's career as songwriter and singer, he was regarded as an elder statesman in music circles.

But, ah, those songs, that voice.

Shock Hearing his latest nine-track collection, you might think not much has changed. Cohen retains the ability to shock by stealth.

On Almost Like The Blues, the first release from this set, against a hokey lounge rhythm, his opening lines hit like a collapsing building. "I saw some people starving. There was murder, there was rape . . ."

The man's wry sense of humour can be detected in the second verse. "There's torture and there's killing. There's all my bad reviews . . . Lord it's almost like the blues."

Producer Patrick Leonard supplies eight of the melodies. Leonard's partner Anjani Thomas co-writes The Street. "The party's over but I've landed on my feet."

Anjani once told me of her amazement at the lyrical wonders she discovered in Cohen's notebooks. And while I'd read his Nevermind before, the staccato delivery here, with Anjani adding a chorus-like melody, is riveting.

Popular Problems feels fulfilling. There are dilemmas aired here that elude most younger people. There's a sense of approaching a final chapter, although with Leonard when was it any different? Above all there's a calm resolution and insistence that, despite the bad stuff, life is worth enjoying.

"You got me singing," he croaks. "Even tho' the news is bad."

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