I won’t lie—when I read that Leonard Cohen was coming out with a new album, I was pretty sure everyone was wrong. I thought it was all hearsay and believed the golden rule: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Despite Old Ideas having come out in 2012, I didn’t think that Cohen would return with his 13th studio album at the age of 80. I hate myself for saying it, but I thought that he would quit while he was ahead.
The last time I thought I would hear Cohen was back in 2004 when he released Dear Heather, and to be honest, it sounded like a constant reminder that the then-70-year-old Cohen was reaching the end of his career. The only thing that remained on the album was the ghost of a great musician giving fans a final—and seemingly half-hearted—goodbye.
It was the same year that his ex-manager, Kelley Lynch, was fired after working with Cohen for about 17 years. She was also sued by the singer in 2005 after having embezzled $5 million from him and in 2012 was arrested after constantly breaking the rules of the restraining order he filed against her.
In all fairness, Cohen and his reps have never explicitly said that his latest work was driven by a need for money (although Cohen hinted about it in a 2009 interview with Jian Ghomeshi on Q). Old Ideas wound up on charts all over the world and was listed as one of the best albums of the year and one of Cohen’s best to date. The album did incredibly well and after Dear Heather, Cohen needed a good comeback (if he was ever planning on having one). But after it came out, it seemed like nothing more than another great album released by one of music’s greats. Whatever the reason for Popular Problems, being brought back to the studio sparked some of Cohen’s best work.
Popular Problems is loaded with songs about dealing with struggles, even if they are not his own, such as “Samson in New Orleans”, a depiction of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the concept of death. The first song, “Slow”, discusses Cohen’s own mortality but also his desire to keep the fire inside him burning. “Slow” is one of my favourites of Popular Problems, and I can’t get over how well the lyrics show the fight still left in Cohen.
“Samson in New Orleans” is also one of my favourites. Cohen’s raspy voice coupled with female vocals and violin solos makes for a great song that completely floored me. The lyrics of this song are enough to move anyone and the story behind the song is just beautiful: “There’s no way to answer. That is certainly true. Me, I’m blind with death and anger and that’s no place for you.”
Popular Problems is a great mix of genres, too, with country, soul, and funk making appearances in various songs. The accompaniment of female vocals in some of his songs helps to drive the point of his lyrics home with listeners.
This album wasn’t exactly expected, and if anything it could have been a total catastrophe—another album by a musician at this age could have gone either way. But Cohen proved that he’s still got it and I would have overpaid to listen to this album.