CD review: Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems

The Leonard Cohen we know and love is back with the gift that keeps on giving: his magical way with words, his spiritual side, the music that flows therefrom, and that distinctive voice – limited in range, but deeply resonant. He remains a master wordsmith and uses that gift to underscore his connection with the suffering of the world, and his call to fix its multiple ills, rooted in his Jewish ethos.

This is the Leonard Cohen we hear on his latest CD, Popular Problems (Columbia) – a feast of nine songs. He shares the musical credit on seven songs with keyboardist Patrick Leonard, one with Anjani Thomas, and Born in Chains is all Cohen’se. Many will marvel at the fact that he is productive and touring even as he recently turned 80. Having been defrauded of much of his lifetime earnings by a former manager and trusted friend, the story goes that he returned to active performing to make ends meet.

His decision proved to be a blessing in disguise, since it rekindled the spark in his creativity and other energies. Cohen tells us in his opener that he’s “slowing down the tune” because “I never liked it fast.” That’s what I remember when I first met him in the winter of 1966, at a hootenanny in his small apartment on Aylmer St. in the McGill ghetto. Leonard told one interviewer that he has been “an outlaw” since the age of 15, when he and some friends started the Buckskin Boys.

But anyone who meets this gracious man knows that wasn’t the case. Leonard spent the evenings hanging around, playing guitar, and relaxing. It was slow then, and, as Cohen says, “I’ve always liked it slow, slow is in my blood.”

When he was at McGill, and published Let Us Compare Mythologies, to be followed by Flowers for Hitler and The Spicebox of Earth, literature teacher and important poet, Louis Dudek, knighted him as a full- fledged poet. Few songwriters can equal his gift as a lyrical wordsmith.

Listen to Almost Like the Blues, with its gripping opening stanza: I saw some people starving/There was murder, there was rape/Their villages were burning/They were trying to escape/I couldn’t meet their glances/I was staring at my shoes/It was acid, it was tragic/It was almost like the blues.

He sings in his comfort zone and some of the tunes are more chants than actual songs, but the orchestrations give them the colours missing from Cohen’s vocal treatment. This is his charm.

Asked recently if he would have done things differently, if he could relive his life, Cohen told CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, “Je ne regrette rien.” Then he sang a song popularized by Édith Piaf. Yet we hear in Born in Chains that there still is torment and unfulfilled desire in his soul of souls, and a deep connection to his roots that remains as pillars of his worldview.

“I fled to the edge/Of the Mighty Sea of Sorrow/Pursued by the riders/Of a cruel and dark regime/But the waters parted/And my soul crossed over/Out of Egypt/Out of Pharaoh’s dream.

The dream, as interpreted by the biblical Joseph, was of seven years of plenty, to be followed by seven years of famine.

Cohen likes to say, “If I knew where the good songs come from I’d go there more often.” These songs signal his return to the promised land of artistic creation.

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