Vinyl Vlog 054

Vinyl Vlog 054

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the Popular Problems LP by Leonard Cohen.

Prior to hearing Popular Problems, I was of the well-founded assumption that Charles Dickens was the man best able to straddle the line between affection and alienation which often sounded or read like someone saying (to update the language a bit), “I love you, but you such.” Granted, many poets, authors and songwriters have framed their work in a similar manner to Dickens or used his devices and cliches in an attempt to attain some fanfare for themselves over the years, but no one has ever managed to surpass the master – not really, not even close. On occasion, even Leonard Cohen seemed to be attempting to mimic the master Dickens (see “Tower Of Song,” “Everybody Knows” or “Hallelujah,” for examples) but always seemed to come up short of his intended goal, somehow. As good as Cohen’s albums are, that has always been the greatest heartbreaker about them; they come so damned close to genuinely being in the same league as Charles Dickens in form and manner, but there has always been some little element (an overstatement, hesitation, understatement, misstep, whatever) which holds them up and keeps the singer from becoming referred to as Charles Dickens’ successor or the poet laureate of heartbreak and hard feelings.

It might be because Cohen recently celebrated his eightieth birthday and it might be because the singer has orchestrated another dynamic change to the musical beds upon which the lyrics of the songs on Popular Problems perch, but there’s no doubt about the fact that the singer is onto something intellectually provocative with his thirteenth album. This time, the poetic angles of the songs which have always been so key to their success are thrown into the brightest spotlight by the more bluesy instrumental structures employed here and the simple, most plainspoken aspect of the language utilized causes each track to feel more candid and accessible than Cohen has ever dared be before – it’s almost shocking. Looking at that aspect of the music, it could be said that Popular Problems could easily be called Workingman’s Cohen, and that impression proves to never fade on repeated listens.

From the moment the album starts, a slinky, sexy, dark and intimate vibe begins to aerate out of “Slow” and Cohen begins growling sweet nothings to listeners with the words, “I’m slowing down the tune/ I never liked it fast/ You want to get there soon/ I want to get there last.” It’s sweet black magic; Cohen’s voice and words easily hold listeners frozen in awe and the music rolls through smooth and dark like a thunderhead but, unlike other compositions which have generated similar acclaim (like “Waiting For The Miracle,” “Ain’t No Cure For Love” and “Diamonds in the Mine”), “Slow” also builds and develops very organically; where the music often seemed set up or two-dimensional (as the backdrop would be in a play), listeners will find they’re able to delve deeply into “Slow.”

The organic build first shown by “Slow” continues to develop in “Almost Like The Blues” and “Samson In New Orleans” but the songs also further connects Popular Problems with Cohen’s older work. Here, the singer incorporates some of the dystopian imagery and dramatism which played an important role in The Future and I’m Your Man and weaves it into these new sounds with truly captivating results. Just as was the case in The Future, images of hunger, starvation, murder and rape are put forward by Cohen’s baritone which will have longtime fans running to investigate the scene, but it’s the slithering rhythm figure which really defies comparison in the Cohen songbook. That loungy rhythm slithers along smoothly and pulls “Almost Like The Blues” along with it is unquestionably the work of the touring band Cohen has kept for his last couple of albums and world tours, but they really shine here because they finally have the opportunity to put their own stamp on some great new compositions and help Cohen develop a new voice. They do the same thing to even greater effect on “Samson In New Orleans,” which also sees Cohen inserting some of his finest heartbroken lyrical fare (“There’s other ways to answer/ That certainly is true/ Me, I’m blind with death and anger/ And that’s no place for you”) alongside an inspired performance by keyboardist Patrick Leonard, bassist Joe Ayoub, drummer Brian McLeod and violinist Alexandru Bublitchi which is clearly intended to make sure this artistic turn is a group effort, if it wasn’t already patently evident.

As the side progresses, Cohen steps out of himself a bit (sort of) and hotwires a song which could easily have appeared on one of the last three Tom Waits albums (“A Street”) before getting woundedly romantic once more for “Did I Ever Love You” to close out the side. With these two songs, it becomes obvious just how much work really went into making Popular Problems; where Leonard Cohen’s albums have previously followed the same lyrical muse all the way through (with the obvious exception being Songs of Love and Hate, among a few others), the five songs on the A-side of Popular Problems are much more diffuse in focus, but the side still holds together this time thanks to the musical compositions. There are clear connections in the bluesy sinews which run through each of these songs and that makes for a very focused presentation in a manner which wasn’t quite as obvious on Cohen’s other albums.

That focus picks up right where “Did I Ever Love You” left off in the old school blues posture of “My Oh My.” Here, Cohen bravely leaves his wounded heart open and free of artifice as he just begins repeating lyrics light a mantra (“Wasn’t hard to love you/ Didn’t have to try/ Wasn’t hard to love you/ Didn’t have to try/ Held you for a little while/ My Oh My Oh My”) as if to illustrate that the shock of his broken heart has left him a bit stunted and unable to move forward. Such a composition would be called cathartic for any other singer but, because it plays the way it does, the song means a hell of a lot more for Leonard Cohen. Some other singer repeating the same lines over and over could be called cathartic but, for Cohen (a.k.a. The normally dry-eyed stoic) this is groundbreaking; the song and its structure veer very, very close to touching on pop territory and, when listeners understand that, they’ll be able to do nothing other than listen slack-jawed – Cohen has never played like this before and that he does it here feels groundbreaking because it plays so easily against type for the singer. The exact same reason is why “Nevermind” stands out so beautifully; indulging colloquialisms like the song’s title has always been very uncommon in Cohen’s songbook, but that he seems able to shift gears into it so easily feels mesmerizing.

After a bit of existential rumination (“Born In Chains”), Cohen closes shop with an end-of-the-world ditty but, unlike most of the other, similar fare the singer has penned over the duration of his career, “You Got Me Singing” takes a very light, almost whimsical tack. Lines like “You got me singing/ Even tho’ the news is bad/ You got me singing/ The only song I ever had” feel almost rattled off in a way; not quite like they aren’t valuable or meaningful, just cavalier and, again, that’s a dramatic change for Leonard Cohen – who has always been about as serious as a heart attack all the time. That lighthearted turn makes for a great end to the Popular Problems because there is nothing ominous about it; which makes it a thoroughly unique creature in the Cohen canon. Such a change ensures that listeners will definitely be back when Cohen releases another album; they’ll want to see if the change is an enduring one.


Further Reading:
Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems – [CD review]

Popular Problems is out now on vinyl, and the record also includes a CD rather than a digital download. Buy it here on Amazon.

Comments are closed.