Tuesday, March 22, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 847: Leonard Cohen

Sheila and I were in Vancouver the last few days celebrating our anniversary by visiting friends and a bit of shopping. I didn’t have the greatest luck finding clothes this time but I did hit a rock and roll hat trick; a good album (“Dark Passion Play” by Nightwish), some cool new headphones (the ‘Encore’ by LSTN) and a pair of rock star shoes (the ‘Buster’ by John Fluevog).

A special shout out to Pam at Experience Headphones on west Granville who helped walk me through the various options and find the right match for me.

Disc 847 is….Popular Problems
Artist: Leonard Cohen

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover? This cover looks like it was designed by Cohen after he took a one day course at the community college about how to use Photoshop.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve been a fan of Leonard Cohen since high school. This is just me buying his latest album when it came out, because that is what I’ve always done.

How It Stacks Up:  With the addition of this record I now have 12 studio albums by Leonard Cohen. “Popular Problems” is near the bottom of the list at #10, but don’t hold that against it. Leonard Cohen’s discography is pretty impressive, and even #10 is better than many other artist’s best efforts.

Ratings: 4 stars. It was right on the edge of 3 and 4, but hearing it one last time on my new Encores put it over the top.

I need to get my hands on whatever supplements Leonard Cohen is taking to stay so fresh and cool. “Popular Problems” was released around the time of Leonard’s eightieth birthday, and it is an exceptional record.

This album represents a comeback for Leonard in my mind. It’s his fourth album released since 2001 and his best over that span. 2001’s “Ten New Songs” has great songs but suffers from bad production, and 2012’s “Old Ideas” is great in places, but uneven overall. The less said about 2004’s “Dear Heather” the better.

On “Old Ideas” Cohen transforms himself from wise old monk to sexy fedora-wearing lounge singer. “Popular Problems” builds on this character and finds his voice with more clarity and insight. In many ways the albums are similar, but “Popular Problems” has a bit more jump and a bit more sass.

It also benefits from superior production decisions. The flourish of violin and horns in many of these songs give them a toe-tapping quality that hearkens back to Cohen’s work on “The Future.” Cohen long ago learned to offset the limitations of his own voice with more talented female backing vocalists. “Popular Problems” finds just the right balance of his gravelly tones and the angelic sounds of Charlean Carmon, Dana Glover and Donna Delory.

Cohen’s voice is starting to show its age, but since he’s always been one half a spoken-word poet it doesn’t really matter. Also, Cohen has a great sense of timing and if the river no longer flows quite so powerful over all that gravel, he still knows its course well enough to make you enjoy the journey.

Cohen shares the songwriting stage with Patrick Leonard (known for his work on some of Madonna’s biggest tracks). Patrick Leonard finds just the right musical pocket for Cohen’s lyrics to play off and reinvigorates Cohen’s music with some fresh approaches.

Subject-wise, Cohen’s interest in the human condition and all its yearning is as fresh as ever. The record starts with “Slow” a song that acknowledges Cohen is slowing down, but only in the sexiest way possible. From there he rarely looks back or focuses on aging.

Almost Like the Blues” takes an unflinching look at the human misery in the world and “Samson in New Orleans” takes on disillusionment, though whether with faith or friends it isn’t clear. I suspect both.

Cohen’s lyrics have always been a showcase of his music, and while the poetry on “Popular Problems” isn’t at the height of his earlier career, there are still plenty of gems. This is a favourite stanza of mine from “A Street”:

“Baby don’t ignore me
We were smokers we were friends
Forget that tired story
Of betrayal and revenge
I see the Ghost of Culture
With numbers on his wrists
Salute some new conclusion
Which all of us have missed.”

But really this record is more about how Cohen’s lyrics so seamlessly match to the music. The hurt in Cohen’s voice on “Did I Ever Love You” is just one third of what makes the song work. Equally important are Dana Glover’s up-tempo choral response to the question, and the flourishes of organ and violin that add the needed emptiness between the two voices.

My favourite song on the record is “Nevermind” which you may know from the opening credits of Season Two of “True Detective.” With its funky bass beat and its apocalyptic lyrics that speak of sin and genocide and the people who get away with murder, this song will make you bob your head to the groove and then feel guilty for doing so.

The one clunker was “Born in Chains” which feels dated and heavy handed with its church organ sound and Old Testament imagery. However, the whole album (which is a tasteful nine tracks and 35 minutes) this is the only one that didn’t appeal to me either lyrically, melodically or both.

One day Leonard Cohen won’t be with us and that will a sad day for music. However, we can all take heart that he was putting out art of a very high quality right to the end.

Best tracks:  Almost Like the Blues, Samson in New Orleans, Did I Ever Love You, Nevermind

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