You don’t get too many artists like Leonard Cohen. As the Canadian singer-songwriter enters his 80th year, he still manages to tour and record in a manner becoming of a person much younger. Popular Problems is his thirteenth studio album in a musical career spanning almost fifty years, and though it’s easy to think that he’s just spinning the wheels with each new release, there’s enough here to prove that he hasn’t lost his skill or his charm.
Bluesy opening track Slow is quick to address such concerns, as Cohen delivers wry lyrics about his tendency to create slow songs, including self-deprecating remarks about his age. He sings them in his distinctive weathered manner over a bouncy (yet slow) carnival-like song full of horns and keyboards. Almost Like the Blues immediately changes gears by having Cohen deliver a dark tale of physical and spiritual misery over an appropriately moody number that features interesting combinations of percussion, piano and strings.
Samson in New Orleans may begin with smooth piano and bass in a manner befitting the titular location’s jazzy history, but it’s not much lighter than the previous track when it comes to its lyrics, with plenty of references to the titular Biblical character. A Street begins with a swaggering bass-and-keyboard hook and adds lilting female backing vocals that still manage to sound appropriate as Cohen weaves another tale of ordinary sadness about a failed relationship.
Did I Ever Love You starts with a slow piano part while Cohen sings in a voice that sounds distractingly like Tom Waits, but quickly segues into an up-tempo folk-country number where his female backup singers take the lead. The song becomes a sort of duet that alternates between Cohen singing over piano and backups singing over guitars, which does surprise at first but gradually becomes comfortable.
My Oh My sounds slightly upbeat thanks to the percussion and horns, but at its heart it’s still Cohen-by-numbers as he delivers another song about a doomed love affair, this time rendered slightly ridiculous by the repetition of the titular phrase. Nevermind has a muted funk vibe to it thanks to a simple yet effective bass hook, which adds some character to a tune that diverges from the previous ones in its clever use of warlike imagery. Born in Chains sounds like a Gospel song with its church-organ melody and harmonious choral singing. The lyrics follow suit by adopting a religious theme, referencing events from the Book of Exodus and occasionally addressing God directly.
Closing number You Got Me Singing adopts a folk style with its use of guitar and violin, though it adds in the backup vocals and piano after a couple of verses. The decision to make every other line “You got me singing” and occasionally “You got me thinking” does seem restrictive and repetitive at first but adds an interesting structure to the lyrics as Cohen sings a bittersweet ode to the song’s subject, the narrator’s one small spark of hope in a dead world. It’s as suitable as a closing song for a Cohen album could be.
Though Popular Problems is not likely to become a classic in its own right, it manages to hold its own as the latest addition to Leonard Cohen’s rather impressive discography. The songs may repeat themselves a bit both musically and thematically, but bitter romanticism coupled with smooth professionalism is what people have come to expect from Cohen over the past few decades and even now he is more than happy to oblige (even though he doesn’t sound like it on these songs).