Co-written and produced by frequent Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems is easily the best album he’s released since his 2008 comeback after a 15 year absence. It’s only 9 songs long, clocking in at 36 minutes, but there’s not a bad one in the bunch. And, yes, I thought 2012’s Old Ideas was brilliant. I just happen to think that Popular Problems is even better.
While most of the songs on Popular Problems — events most of us share — are entirely new, there are a couple that took Cohen quite a while to get right. Cohen first wrote “A Street” following September 11th; it would seem to use a woman as a metaphor for New York City or America. “I’m standing on this corner / Where there used to be a street,” he sings during the chorus. And, according to NPR, the Exodus-inspired “Born In Chains” took “decades to write.” “I was born in chains, but I was taken out of Egypt,” begins mellow and sorrowful track. On that one song he conveys more emotion than some artists do in their entire careers.
“I’ve always liked it slow, that’s what my momma said,” sings Cohen and a whole group of soulful female backing vocalists — a Cohen trademark — during “Slow.” “It’s not because I’m old,” he adds, less you mistakenly think otherwise. It’s a sweet, bluesy number that says a lot about the man, who’s been meditating Zen style for years now.
“Samson In New Orleans” is a slow-burning reflection on Katrina and its terrible aftermath. The song delivers its sorrowful mood in spades, skipping through your heart and going straight to your soul. “She was better than America, that’s what I heard you say,” he sings tenderly.
“Did I Ever Love You” is one of Cohen’s most interesting songs to date. It begins with him singing with piano and synth backing him, coming across as traditional style of ballad, but once it hits the chorus, it transforms into a whole different animal, turning into an old school, danceable country track. Likewise, closer “You Got Me Singing” has a distinct country flavor with its delicate acoustic guitars and Alexandru Bublitchi’s masterful violin playing. “You got me thinking like those people of the past,” he sings matter-of-factly. I suppose some people might think of the past when they think about Leonard Cohen, but here we have brand new reflections, mostly on modern times, and his voice remains as one-of-a-kind — and vital — as ever. He also happens to be our greatest street poet to date; he just happens to put his words to music.