Published Sep 19, 2014These days, it's become increasingly rare to see a "legendary" musical artist truly improve with age. With a few notable exceptions (Nick Cave chief amongst them), the heroes of yesteryear are either trotted out on comeback tours solely to revisit their hits, or they choose to write new material that is more often than not greeted with a lukewarm reception, plagued by the spectre of their aging back catalogue.
Leonard Cohen exists in a different category; whether you see him as an elder statesman, a shaman, an artist poet, a sexy grandpa or a charity case, his latter-day albums are treated with a hushed reverence by just about everyone — even if they sometimes tend towards the inconsistent and, more recently, the outright maudlin. Popular Problems, Cohen's 13th studio album, marks both his 80th birthday and his best record since 2001's Ten New Songs. It's surprising, deeply moving and occasionally stunning.
The album opens with the groovy "Slow," on which two of Cohen's favourite subjects — seduction and mortality — unroll towards us like a lush, heavy carpet. "I always liked it slow/ It's not because I'm old/ Not because I'm dead," he argues. Other songs offer a lovely balance of beauty and restraint — a ticklish fragment of bongo floats to the surface here, a burst of strings there — and Cohen's words are equally well chosen. He is unafraid, too, to go deadpan on a dime, just how we like it: "There's torture and there's killing, and all my bad reviews," he sings on the otherwise mordant "Almost Like the Blues." The only sour note is "Nevermind," on which Cohen does his own version of gloomy jive-talk over a weird, funky organ. It hearkens back to Abe Simpson's old-guy jazz-rap to Homer about playing it cool, and it will induce giggles. But at this point in Cohen's illustrious career, one stinker out of nine ain't bad. (Columbia)