“I always liked it slow / Slow is in my blood,” a rasping Leonard Cohen claims at the start of his 13th album, Popular Problems. That’s true—one number, “Born In Chains,” took a reported 40 years’ worth of revisions to get right—though in fact the Canadian songwriter is speeding up in his 80th year. Popular Problems arrives just two and a half years after 2012’s Old Ideas, a half-second in the lifespan of this career and a departure from Cohen’s (in)famously arduous gestation period. (Old Ideas broke a seven-year silence.) Some songs, he’s admitted, emerged with “shockingly alarming speed”; another record is already half complete.
So there’s an urgency here that’s been largely absent from 21st-century Cohen. At nine tracks in 36 minutes, Problems is the artist’s leanest disc since Various Positions in 1984, as well as one of his sharper and more musically adventurous. Now, it seems, is the time to get it all out: The first three tracks each allude to death in explicit fashion (“It’s not what dying does,” and, “I’m blind with death and anger”), but our hero still has scores to settle and dirty visions to unravel while he can. Over slinky bass lines and crisp, unobtrusive drum loops, Cohen does so with the wry, tormented humor that’s sustained his half-century career. There’s a pointed wit to these miseries: “I cried for you this morning and I’ll cry for you again,” he growls on the jazzy, quick-paced “A Street,” only to snark: “But I’m not in charge of sorrow, so please don’t ask me when.”
As usual, the freshest-sounding songs are those that tread the farthest from Cohen’s gypsy-folk roots, but here that’s most of them, save the plodding thud of “Samson In New Orleans” and the lilting, acoustic “You Got Me Singing.” Problems is, like many Cohen albums, the result of a creative partnership: Keyboardist and producer Patrick Leonard co-wrote eight of its nine tracks, steering the artist away from the dour tempos and karaoke arrangements that enveloped 2004’s Dear Heather and toward brighter flourishes. An easy highlight—the low, sinister “Nevermind”—is lit up by a rumbling synthesizer pulse and a sample of a sung Arabic greeting; “Almost Like The Blues” recalls 1992’s “The Future” with its driving bass figure, synth flare-ups, and sly, paranoid ranting (“There’s torture and there’s killing / And there’s all my bad reviews”). All are rendered in a voice so hoarse and shattered it sounds like death itself. Paired with the women’s choruses that have been Cohen’s standby since the late ’80s, the contrast borders on comical and occasionally maudlin, though rarely as a crutch.
It’s become something of a cliché with Cohen to mention how a new LP returns, again and again, to the themes that define his work: spirituality, longing, sex, despair. Of course it does—it’s Leonard Cohen, not James Taylor.
But Problems is anchored just as vividly by the sharp relief of acknowledged unknowing, of pain and memories that can’t be accessed or have been mercifully let go. “Did I Ever Love You” is a volley of interrogations levied in a gruff, staccato bark, but Cohen responds to them himself, with a shrug and a retraction: “Did I ever love you / Does it really matter / Did I ever fight you / You don’t need to answer.” “Born In Chains” closes with a half-whispered, “That’s all I know / I can’t read the rest.” It took 40 years to arrive at that pronouncement. Like much of Cohen’s work, it’ll take another 40 to parse it out.