In a multifaceted career that has spanned six decades, Leonard Cohen has been an acclaimed poet, an inventive novelist and a revered singer-songwriter.
Despite little chart success, his work has become omnipresent in pop culture. Three of his songs were featured in Robert Altman’s 1971 anti-Western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” and two more were in 2008’s “Watchmen.” His song “Hallelujah” has become such an enduring staple that a book has been written on its vast influence and ascent to the pop music canon as a go-to cover song.
Even with his towering influence and status as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, the music of the 80-year-old Canadian singer is considered to be a niche taste by some. This may be due to his voice, which by the 1980s had hardened into a low baritone.
It may also have to do with his tendency to take things slowly. He was 33 when he issued his debut album “Songs of Leonard Cohen” in 1967, and before this week, he had only released three studio albums in the past 20 years. One of them was actually called “Ten New Songs,” almost as if his fans had to be convinced that he was still producing new studio material.
That’s why it seems strange that this time around, Cohen took only two years between 2012’s “Old Ideas” and his new release, “Popular Problems.” Despite the quick (for Cohen) turnaround, “Popular Problems” does not feel like a rush job and has the same care and lyrical intricacies one would expect from Cohen.
On songs such as single “Almost Like the Blues,” he’s joined by backing vocalists, a trademark of his recordings since the mid-1980s. Some of Cohen’s diehard fans believe that his reliance on other voices on his songs are a distraction from his own, but that seems a bit harsh. They add emphasis to certain passages, particularly choruses and act as a bell effect for Cohen’s voice.
One of the album’s highlights is Â “Samson in New Orleans” in which Cohen returns to the one of the lyrical inspirations that he used on “Hallelujah.” Here, he again draws modern day allusions from the Old Testament story of Samson. While not as immediate as “Hallelujah,” the song is a grower and another in a long line of tremendous word
“Did I Ever Love You” is another standout, especially for its playful composition. The downtempo verses are sung by Cohen, backed only by piano. The chorus is performed by his backing singers accompanied by full band and strummed arpeggiated guitar. It’s a terrific piece of pop craftsmanship, and one that takes a nod to the new generation of folk musicians that are currently seeing the genre through a highly successful revival.
“Popular Problems” is likely to be compared to “Old Ideas.” It shares much of the sonic template of its predecessor, especially in its reliance on blues keyboard, a stark difference from the folk guitar or new wave synthesizers that had provided instrumentation behind Cohen’s words in the past.
On the record, Cohen’s lyrics are as sharp as ever, and his vocal performances are powerful from his near spoken delivery, recalling his roots as one of most celebrated poets of 1950s Canada.
Ultimately, “Popular Problems” is a welcome addition to the Cohen canon, and one that is sure to please his dedicated following.