Leonard Cohen decries old age on Slow, the bluesy lead-off track on his 13th album, Popular Problems. He sings of liking a slow groove in a gravelly whisper over a dark track that sounds like Steely Dan on cough syrup.
On his 80th birthday, Cohen is entering that charmed company that counts Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and JJ Cale amongst its members. Cohen can’t sing a phone book but he can create atmosphere.
Popular Problems is dark and sparse but Cohen’s lines also leave lots of space. Samson in New Orleans is close to classic Cohen: an evocative Europe-at-the-brink-of-war abandon lurks behind his delivery. But Cohen is often a victim or magnet of hyperbole. His lyrics are mined for meaning when they’re often just images.
“The party’s over and I landed on my feet. I’m standing on this corner where there used to be a street.” And so it goes.
Taken separately, away from his other work, this album lacks poetic power and high drama. Cohen is usually on the laid back side of intellectual but he was always able to muster chilling tracks like The Partisan – a classic example of blunt reporting via the medium of a doomed man’s diary. There’s nothing so melodramatic here on Popular Problems but Cohen gets out on that lone wolf wavelength on Me Oh My and Nevermind.
This is a subdued sounding album: minimalist keyboard hooks bounce on drum machine beats and allow Cohen his needed vocal room. His trademark gut-string guitar is gone for the most part, making a cameo on the wistful You Got Me Singing and Me Oh My.
The slow burn of electric piano and sultry background vocals are a different vehicle for the songs but they lose the edge that voice, guitar and like accompaniment bring to the music. Still, Cohen and his songwriting partner, Patrick Leonard, have crafted a coherent and solid album whose strength is muted atmosphere and purposefully intoned voice/vocal delivery.
He doesn’t really sing but he gives a great interview.
– Dean Gordon-Smith is a Vernon-based musician who reviews new releases for The Morning Star every Friday.