Leonard Cohen celebrates his milestone birthday by releasing a new album today, writes Ed Power
HE IS a riddle wrapped in an enigma beneath a battered fedora. This week, as Leonard Cohen contemplates being 80 (yesterday was his birthday), he releases his 13th studio album, Popular Problems. For an artist of such vintage, it is a remarkably rounded, compelling work — a worthwhile addition to one of the most storied canons in pop.
Relayed in Cohen’s subterranean croon, the lyrics are obsessed with mortality. Cohen is vividly aware that, in his ninth decade, life does not have many more surprises, but his attitude is humour and laconic resignation. He doesn’t so much laugh in the face of death as shrug good naturedly: ‘What’s the point’, he seems to say, ‘of binding yourself in knots? What happens happens’.
Popular Problems attests to the slow-burn of Cohen’s writing. Several songs have been in progress for years. He started ‘A Street’ in the aftermath of 9/11 — now, it can be interpreted as a meditation on the Twin Towers attack or as a more general contemplation of despair, and how it makes the every-day seem baroque and menacing.
Even starker is ‘Born In Chains’, a track Cohen conceptualised in the late 1970s; only now was he able to find a way ‘inside’ it. In this darkly rumbling gospel number, he ruminates on spirituality, and its place as we face the void in our later years (“I’ve rewritten it many times to accommodate a change in my theological position,” he said last week). As in his best work, Cohen gets away with his considerable portentousness by undercutting the navel-staring with arid wit and compelling music.
Popular Problems is a collaboration with Patrick Leonard, a new-age composer who has worked with Madonna and Bryan Ferry. Leonard has an intuitive grasp of what makes Cohen special: the cut-glass laconism, the bittersweet brio, the meditative world-view. With full-bodied arrangements, he creates a launch-pad for the artist’s musings.
Cohen has said of the circumstances in which the project was assembled: “It was a very agreeable collaboration, because of an absence of ego and an abundance of musical ideas on Patrick’s part. Most of the musical ideas were Patrick’s, with a bit of modification. Whether there were horns or violin, all of those things were decided mutually … I would have a rhythm in mind and … I had the function of the veto. Some of the songs on the new record came together at shockingly alarming speed.”
His working methods remain a mystery to himself. “A lot of young writers ask me for advice — mistakenly, because my methods are obscure and not to be replicated,” he said. “The only thing I can say is, a song will yield if you stick with it long enough. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable duration. Sometimes, a song has to hang around for a decade or two before it finds its expression.”
Cohen was born in an English-speaking suburb of Montreal on September 21, 1934 (three months before Elvis Presley came into the world a few thousand kilometres south). As a young man, he played country music and hung around the strip joints and saloons of his home town’s notorious ‘Little Portugal’ neighbourhood.
In his 20s, Cohen had it in his mind to become a great poet, and achieved recognition — and notoriety — with four volumes of verse and two novels (the sexual explicitness caused a minor outcry in Quebec). But writing did not pay the bills and, in the late ’60s, he relocated to New York, and hung around with Andy Warhol and the Greenwich Village set, trying make it as a songwriter.
In his 30s, he seemed incredibly world weary. He emanated a rumpled wisdom and, as a Europhile Jew from French-speaking Canada, an air of the exotic. But success, as Cohen’s favourite poet, WB Yeats, might have written, came ‘dripping slow’. By the early ’70s, Cohen was worshipped by fans — in the 1972 concert movie, Bird On A Wire, his discomfort with acclaim is clear — but cultish adoration did not translate into record sales (“Look, Leonard, we know you’re great… we don’t know if you’re any good,” a record executive once told him).
Whatever about not troubling the pop charts, Cohen’s artistic persona was instantly recognisable. He was the womaniser with the down-turned mouth, a laconic poet irresistible to the opposite sex, yet unknowable, even to himself. Behind the weathered exterior, he was deeply depressive, and struggled with a great melancholy that has only lifted in old age.
“When I speak of depression,” he said in 2012, “I speak of a clinical depression that is the background of your entire life, a background of anguish and anxiety, a sense that nothing goes well, that pleasure is unavailable and all your strategies collapse. I’m happy to report that, by imperceptible degrees and by the grace of good teachers and good luck, that depression slowly dissolved and has never returned with the same ferocity that prevailed for most of my life.
“I read somewhere that as you grow older certain brain cells die that are associated with anxiety, so it doesn’t really matter how much you apply yourself to the disciplines. You’re going to start feeling a lot better or a lot worse, depending on the condition of your neurons.”
Cohen is rare, a popular artist whose output has remained of high quality, and arguably gained in depth and nuance with age. He doesn’t have a contemporary — if we can speak of him in the same breath as, say, Bob Dylan, the scale of this feat is clear.
Aside from one or two wobbles in the ’70s — the Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies Man was a rare misstep — Cohen has proceeded with enormous grace and calm.
What tragedies have afflicted him he has inhaled deeply and incorporated into his oeuvre. When he emerged from a retreat of several years at a zen monastery in Los Angeles — which he had hoped would cure his depression — he discovered that his life savings had been siphoned off. He rallied, embarking on the great second act of his career.
Resuming touring in the 2000s, after more than a decade away, Cohen feared nobody would care. That seems ludicrous today, but without a substantial hit in decades — he has never had a platinum album — Cohen’s chief brush with the mass-market had been as composer of ‘Hallelujah’, a hymnal covered by artists as diverse as Jeff Buckley and Alexandra Burke. Gone for so long, did anyone really want to see him again? He wasn’t sure of the answer.
“I was touched by the reception, yes,” he reflected after that first run of sell-out performances. “I remember we were playing in Ireland and the reception was so warm that tears came to my eyes and I thought, ‘I can’t be seen weeping at this point’. Then, I turned around and saw the guitar player weeping.”
“When you witness people’s reactions to a concert… you can see what each person’s personal relationship is with the music,” Hattie Webb, one of Cohen’s backing vocalists, told me in 2010. “I remember our very first concert with Leonard. Everyone was on their feet. Some people were crying. It was a very powerful moment. We felt just as moved as everybody else.”
-Popular Problems is out now.
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