Leonard Cohen is an enigma. His raspy low-register voice has been ever-present since he debuted in the late 60′s with a batch of seedy cellar ballads about sex, doom, and meeting strangers that are lost and scared. So nearly 50 years later, and Cohen engages that dark synergy in all of us. That moment where mortality becomes more than just an afterthought but a serious moment of tender and foreboding reflection. Popular Problems is really about death, probably more so than any of release from Cohen. And can you blame him? Cohen is an artist in the purist sense- a man that considers his body of work in a literal sense upon his passing, and the morality of gloominess that hits when you look at your face in the mirror and notice a few extra cracks of conclusive mortality.
Almost like the Blues is not ‘almost like the blues’ at all- it is bluesy, dark, thoughtful, and sinister. but these are mostly on a lyrical level. There is no God in heaven, there is no hell below speaks/sings Cohen in a gutwrenchingly honest and riveting dissection of hope and faith. But this slightly leads into one of my major problems with popular problems. The instrumentation in these songs are a bit chirpier and upbeat, and it clashes against the lyrical content. For example, Cohen’s peer Tom Waits touches on a lot of the same tales of morality. But his instrumentation is seedier. it is not that he is more contemplative. It is that he revels in pure darkness, where Cohen likes to see the light.
It is the addition of piano work in Cohen’s material that gives it this more inspiring nature. Samson inNew Orleansis a beautifully quaint ballad and narrative, sewing a story of a lost young man facing, unsurprisingly, his own mortality. But at a young age, and through the filter of a narrative, Cohen channels his younger self. He can understand death with more clarity at 80+- but what about a young man who has yet to find love, who only sees a young woman in bed through the window but has yet to grow old with her? of course, the undertones of hurricane Katrina makes the song even more immediate and arresting.
My Oh My has a folksy chamber sound to it that is captivating. Cohen again sneaks into his seedy croon. But Cohen’s songs are hymns, the flipside of Tom Waits darkly enriching ballads. Nevermind moves with that same gritty voice. But the instrumentation seems like a very stripped down R&B dance track. It has a singular pulse, and the addition of melodic world vocals makes it so very odd- and complete.
For the past 50 years, Cohen has remained positive in the face of such horror. Cohen truthfully faces our mortal destruction, but all the time he nods and sings and acknowledges something we all understand but rarely take to heart- it was worth it.