Music: Leonard Cohen’s “Popular Problems”, as reviewed by Parvati Devi
I grew up playing in Montreal streets that echoed with the creative voices of great Canadian artists such as Mordecai Richler and Leonard Cohen. Such memories have left me with a soft spot for Leonard Cohen’s music, whose smoky voice, simple melodies and profound lyrics have marked the chapters of my life.
Yet saying that his most recent album “Popular Problems” is among his best ever is an unbiased opinion. There is good reason that Leonard Cohen’s 13th studio album hit number one in 29 countries around the globe this year shortly after it was released on September 22, 2014, two days after his 80th birthday.
True to the artistic career that he has painted in words and sound since his musical debut in 1967, “Popular Problems” displays a mastery of poetry, imagery and melodies as only a seasoned craftsman could create. Cohen touches upon tender emotional topics with delicacy, poise and wisdom. His expression seems to effortlessly seep into the recesses of the listener’s creative inner world, carrying with it a sense of relief, familiarity, recognition and inspiration. He manages to do what few can: relish and savour all the shades of grey that exist within our vast emotional landscape and human experience, welcoming it all, adoring none. He seems at once immersed in the fullness of living and a witness to its cornucopia unfolding. Tinged with regret, introspection, derision, reverence and joy, the range of songs move from bluesy grit to angelic elation and funky edginess. With Yoko Ono’s recent return to stage at the age of 81 and now Leonard Cohen’s at 80, these octogenarians demonstrate that the time for artistic voicing is very much alive and vibrant as long as the creative spark still burns brightly within.
Age has brought forward a new Louis Armstrong meets Tom Waits feel to Cohen’s classic deep vocals. Some songs on “Popular Problems” are reminiscent of his vintage material, such as “Chelsea Hotel” or “Famous Blue Raincoat”, that are like gate posts along the path to his musical success, while other songs explore a new sonic landscape. But all of the content on “Popular Problems” offers a simple clarity that is truly refreshing in today’s music arena where songs often ping-pong between the over-produced and the under-considered.
Patrick Leonard (Madonna, Elton John, Roger Waters, Bryan Ferry) is producer and co-writer on all but one song. He seems to understand and honour the potency of Cohen’s lyrics by keeping them at the front of the respectful melodies, harmonies and instrumentation that serve Cohen’s presence. The album is very well crafted, yet with all its simple brilliance, historic honouring and refreshing departures, I wish at times that Leonard’s voice would sit into the mix just a bit more. That alone would add another layer of mellowing and make one appreciate this album’s mastery even more fully.
Overall, Patrick is an excellent compliment to Cohen’s creative voice. He adds just the right amount of production juice and creative twists when needed, such as the beautiful addition of Donna De Lory’s Arabic chant for peace in “Nevermind” that keep songs feeling fresh and innovative.
There is no doubt that Leonard Cohen’s “Popular Problems” will rest comfortably alongside his other great works and will leave die-hard fans truly satisfied and new ones intrigued for more from this fine musical artist.
Parvati Devi is the editor-in-chief of Parvati Magazine and an internationally recognized Canadian musician, yogi and new thought leader. As a chart-topping touring musician, Parvati spearheads the Post New-Age musical genre with her independent success hit single “Yoga in the Nightclub”. She founded YEM: Yoga as Energy Medicine, a powerful yoga method that combines energy work and yoga poses. Her critically acclaimed self-help debut book “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie – A Revolutionary Life Makeover for the Sincere Spiritual Seeker” is currently in its third edition.