Leonard Cohen: bard on a wire
The first song on the new album, Popular Problems [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], by the 80-year-old Leonard Cohen apparently begins in the bedroom. Called Slow, the music is bluesy, and Cohen addresses his partner in husky tones: she wants to move fast, he’s all about taking things at a leisurely pace. As the song continues, it becomes clear this is a more generalised kind of moving slowly, a code for living. Nor is this down to age (“It’s not because I’m old, and it’s not what dying does…” he says), but simply how he’s always been. Only by savouring everything, good and bad, the song suggests, can one hope to arrive at understanding.
Slow is what Cohen’s always done. A late starter (he was in his 30s when he made his first album, 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen), Cohen has, for nearly 50 years, investigated the political world and the human heart in language that’s simultaneously wise, allusive and witty. His reports back have not suggested he finds one place markedly less treacherous than the other.
His folky and morose exploration of emotional themes was for awhile a subject of satire (university wits called him “Laughing Len”), but Cohen, a poet and novelist before he was a singer, has laughed last, remaining an enduringly important and romantic figure. In 1988, he updated his sound with synthesizers, and since then the high-end-hotel cabaret sound of his albums has only served to highlight the drama and insight of his lyrics. His songs, such as Hallelujah, are widely covered. To see him live is to witness a collective swoon.
Slow, however, does not correctly describe him lately. At a time of life when most people would hope to be taking it easy, Cohen has in his eighth (and as of September 21, ninth) decade been working harder than ever. In 2004, he discovered that his manager of 17 years had defrauded him of millions of dollars, and since then, he has toured ceaselessly, his spry physicality and good jokes (“I am a closet optimist,” he told his audience at an album playback in London last week) making him an unmissable attraction. Live albums and DVDs have helped restore his financial health, and in the scant breaks in his schedule, he has returned to the studio. Formerly, Cohen albums arrived at about the same rate as the Olympic Games. This is now his second album in two years, while another new record is already apparently half-done.
His last studio album, 2012’s Old Ideas, focused on mortality. Always a wry commenter on his own perceived Lothario persona (as he put it in a 1988 song: “I ache in the places I used to play…”), the album brokered an uneasy peace between old age and romantic love, weighing what was unsatisfactory, consoling and enduringly important. Amid the wryness, libido pictured as “a broken banjo bobbing on a dark, infested sea” and so on, Cohen also delivered great seriousness and empathy. A song such as Amen suggested that even for an elderly person, life was short, in the context of those who had waited generations for justice.
If Old Ideas had been the final Leonard Cohen album, posthumous commentators would have found it to frame the career wonderfully: the craftsman turning his tools expertly to pointedly self-referential work, looking to tie things up tidily at the end of his career as mindfully, say, as Clint Eastwood did with his 2008 movie Gran Torino. As it is, Popular Problems doesn’t rest but moves Cohen’s story on again. Rather than ruminating on physical limitation, the album finds him walking his traditional beat – the cheating heart; the unjust world – sensitive to its character and peculiarities, but this time with the limited power of his own art to make a difference on his mind.
The album has been recorded with a small crew – the former Madonna associate Patrick Leonard produces and is, for two-thirds of the album, Cohen’s sole accompanist – but not at the expense of variety. When a sampled female voice sings an Arabic peace greeting during Nevermind, it is a moment of genuine surprise. After the gentle sway of Slow, meanwhile, the album changes tone abruptly. Almost Like the Blues joins songs such as 1992’s Democracy, in having a live feed to news events. Then it was the ozone layer and Tiananmen Square. Now it’s an uncertain world of civil unrest and extremist uprisings.
In a song of constantly shifting perspectives, Cohen adopts a growling and menacing delivery, the narrator recounting how watching television news has become a horrific pastime. He channels a young combatant (“my father thinks I’m chosen…”) along the way drily incorporating his own voice. The song’s title serves as the hook line, but Cohen’s sense of decorum prevents this becoming distasteful, as he mercilessly sends up his own position as an artist in the context of real suffering. “There’s torture and there’s killing,” he hams darkly, “and all my bad reviews…”
Elsewhere, he draws on other dramatic strategies. On Samson in New Orleans, as he did on Story of Isaac from 1969’s Songs from a Room, he uses a Biblical story for allegorical ends. On the earlier song, he adopted the voice of guileless Isaac taken by his father for sacrifice, while an eagle (“it might have been a vulture…”) looked on symbolically. In such a fashion, Cohen implied, did American politicians unthinkingly send children off to the Vietnam War.
In the new song, Cohen is Samson, and his Delilah the United States government – its betrayal is its failure to respond to the needs of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Elsewhere, Cohen is just as powerful operating in deep cover. On Nevermind, he personifies a sinister agent of private interest; the mercenary, amoral counterpoint to the French resistance fighter whose elliptical narrative he recounted in 1969’s The Partisan. Proud of his work in the shadows, the new speaker has “dug some graves you’ll never find”, his character so repellent Cohen can’t bring himself to inhabit it for the whole song.
When he looks around, what Cohen perceives is a loss of innocence – a loss he frames wonderfully in A Street. Originally a poem published in The New Yorker in 2009, here it is reworked with music, Cohen imagining the post-9/11 world in terms of a relationship gone wrong, a place haunted by the memories of great times that can never be recaptured. “I’ll meet you on the corner,” he sings, “where there used to be a street.”
The keynote of the album is how Cohen narrows the distance between his political and emotional observations. Both politics and love irrevocably alter the course of human life – seductions and betrayals, he seems to be saying, are common to both.
Love, nonetheless, is given its own prominent place. Did I Ever Love You is for the weight of its title, an absurdly jaunty piece of modern country and western. My Oh My, meanwhile, turns over the coals of a past relationship, in which details are redacted by appearance of the title whenever the memory becomes too powerful. “I held you for a little while,” he sings softly. “My oh my…” Cohen implies the strength of feeling in a situation by making it a place where language fails. It’s an idea he places in a different landscape for the penultimate track, Born in Chains, a song he claims to have been working on for 40 years.
Here he participates in Moses’s flight from Egypt. His voice, detailing this journey to the Promised Land – ultimately a universal promised land – regretfully announces that while he knows the story, understands the motivations and empathises with the characters, he doesn’t know how it ends. “I cannot read the rest,” he sings, sadly. Something – whether it’s infirmity, decorum or the sheer impossibility of the situation, prevents him. It’s a grave thing indeed when an eloquent man throws up his hands and decides he cannot helpfully say any more.
Intractable problems, however, have historically drawn Cohen to them, and the final track You Got Me Singing finds him saluting them – as one might a worthy opponent, respectful of their ongoing entanglement. “You got me singing … even though the news is bad,” Cohen says, to the world leaders, the inconstant companions, those who contribute to human suffering. “You got me singing … the only song I ever had.”
It’s certainly not an entirely satisfactory situation. But as with any long-term relationship, Cohen respects its character, and the unique position he has within it. Above all, that you have to be prepared to take the bad times, to make the good ones worth having.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London.