New Leonard Cohen album
Popular Problems, released on Sept. 22, is a low-key pop-folk album by 80-year-old Leonard Cohen. Naturally, the album offers a few unique perspectives on life, coming from someone who, I want to reiterate, is 80 years old. The album has some good production, but issues such as inconsistently interesting sounds, genre archetypes, and odd instrumental decisions keep this album from being a great pop album.
The lyrical content here ranges from completely boring to rather insightful. On the song “Almost Like the Blues,” Cohen muses about life after death, singing in his characteristically gruff and sultry voice, “There is no God in heaven/ And there is no Hell below/ So says the great professor of all there is to know/ But I’ve had the invitation that a sinner can’t refuse/ And it’s almost like salvation; it’s almost like the blues.” The idea that there is no Heaven and Hell, except here on Earth, where Cohen gets his “salvation” from music, is rather interesting despite the cliché.
Cohen also has some remarkably poetic metaphors in songs like “Samson in New Orleans” and “Born in Chains.” They are a real treat to listen to orated in Cohen’s unique voice. Contrasting this with rather boring lyrics on “My Oh My,” “You Got Me Singing,” and “Slow” (literally about taking things slow), makes me wish Cohen had included more retrospection on the album.
The production is similarly spotty. Cohen uses electronic-keyboard bass lines and percussion (specifically a lot of cymbals), usually the same ones with some variation, on every song. Every song has a rather minimalist approach to its production, which works for some songs, but backfires on others.
On “Slow,” for example, the low-key bluesy keyboard backbeat works really well. But the piano and cymbals on a song like “Samson in New Orleans” is rather static and boring. Cohen accents his voice well when he adds some midrange, either in the form of non-electronic piano, guitar, or maracas, like in the songs like “You Got Me Singing” and “Almost Like the Blues.”
You won’t find anything remotely sonically challenging on this album. The blues beats are very archetypal and, a lot of times, aren’t all that interesting. Cohen also uses female backup singers on nearly every song, with varying efficiency.
On “Slow,” the female singers rather sharply disrupt the feel of the song — the song is meant to be low key and, well... slow. Cohen’s low, gruff voice accomplishes this rather well: Having perfect-sounding high-range backup speakers come out of nowhere really disrupts the feel of the song.
In the song “Nevermind,” however, the backup singers blend really well with Cohen’s voice. They work to accent it, and smoothly move underneath in the musical space. The foreign sounding chanting on that song also sounds pretty cool. On “Born in Chains,” the backup singers work to save what otherwise is a rather vanilla production, lending it a really nice gospel feel.
The album has some good production, and interesting lyrics, but seldom on the same song. Suffice to say, Cohen has quite the consistency problem in his album. It’s a shame, because if all the pieces that Cohen demonstrates had come together in the right way, he would have had a hit album with some really great songs. As it is, though, the album is simply too inconsistent to warrant a universal recommendation.
6.5 out of 10