sun 26/03/2017

Album of the Year: Leonard Cohen - Popular Problems | reviews, news & interviews

Album of the Year: Leonard Cohen - Popular Problems

Album of the Year: Leonard Cohen - Popular Problems

The coolest of elders strikes again

The brilliance of so much of his poetry lies in a quintessentially Jewish ability to laugh in the face of pain, terror and misfortune
Masterpiece from late period Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, grand rabbi of poetry and the blues, turned 80 this year, and like a perfectly matured brandy, he only gets better and better. On his most recent European tour, he managed to combine an atmosphere of deep and communal spiritual devotion with consummate entertainment. Many artists cannot always make the leap between live magic and studio precision, but he has succeeded with a new album that shines in a way no other did for me in 2014.

Following hot on the footsteps of the excellent Old Ideas (2012), in which the Canadian singer and songwriter trawled the abyss with a mixture of irony and soul, Popular Problems goes one step further, with a self-assurance and lack of adornment that only eight decades can deliver. “Slow”, the hymn to deceleration that opens the album is a rolling and tumbling blues in which echoes of  the Mississippi Delta meet the distilled and drawn-out eroticism of slow-motion sex. It is a masterpiece of languor, touched, as Cohen so often manages, with sardonic yet gentle humour. The brilliance of so much of his poetry lies in a quintessentially Jewish ability to laugh in the face of pain, terror and misfortune. But this is irony rather than escapism, and the darkness always lurks, alongside the dazzling performance.

After Zen, Cohen followed a master of Vedanta in Bombay and this most ancient of teachings, older still than Buddhism, has clearly inspired him: he unflinchingly faces up to the darkness as well as the light, refusing to be bound or limited by beliefs or words, yet retaining a sense of infinite wonder. “You got me singing”, he says, “although the news is bad” in the beautiful closing track. The song provides a redemptive end to an album which recalls the ups and downs of a lifelong journey and yet moves forward, without fear, towards death. It is fitting, perhaps, that this review should be published on the eve of the day when we celebrate the rebirth of the light at the year’s very darkest point.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters