Music Review: Popular Problems
“Let me catch my breath. I thought we had all night,” Leonard Cohen intones in “Slow,” the opening track from his latest collection of all-new material. At the same time that the 80-year-old singer/songwriter is urging a lover to slow down and savor the moment, he is also inviting listeners to kick off their shoes and stay for a while. It’s a suitably elegant welcome to an album that finds Cohen at his poetic and melodic best.
Popular Problems explores such subjects as war (“Nevermind”), breakups (“Did I Ever Love You”), and natural disaster (“Samson in New Orleans”). Two of these themes overlap in “A Street,” in which the songwriter uses war as a metaphor for the dissolution of a relationship.
In “Almost Like the Blues,” the singer contemplates starvation, torture, and murder, ultimately finding redemption: “There is no God in Heaven, and there is no hell below. So says the great professor of all there is to know. But I’ve had the invitation that a sinner can’t refuse, and it’s almost like salvation; it’s almost like the blues.”
Popular Problems ends on a hopeful note, first with “Born in Chains,” an emotional gospel number that Cohen has spent 40 years perfecting, and then with “You Got Me Singing.” In the latter, the deep-voiced troubadour reveals that “even though the news is bad,” he has met an unnamed liberator who has him “singing the Hallelujah hymn.” On an album of lesser quality, a self-referential line like this might come off as gimmicky, but coming at the end of a work that rivals any of Cohen’s prior efforts, it conjures images of an artist sitting contentedly at the top of his tower of song, taking a hard-earned look back at the path that has brought him there.