Popular music was supposed to be a young person’s game but as it turns out, young people get older and still want to record and perform. So we have, for example, Tony Bennett’s new collaboration with Lady Gaga, Cheek to Cheek, which recently made the 88-year-old Bennett the oldest living artist ever to have a number-one album. And then there’s Popular Problems, the 13th studio CD from Leonard Cohen, who turned 80 two days before the record’s release and is rumored to be planning another concert tour.
If the tour happens and is as good as this album, it will be good indeed. Cohen is still writing sparse, intriguing couplets about love, sex, his Judaic roots, death and the apocalypse. Sometimes profound, sometimes impenetrable, always fascinating, they are often dark, yet sometimes funny enough to make you smile. And he’s still singing in the almost impossibly deep, husky voice that has characterized his music for at least the last quarter century. Plus, he continues to understand how well that voice sounds alongside sweet violins and female backing vocals. He still knows how to effortlessly meld everything from gospel, blues and country to folk, disco and funk. And he still manages to seem simultaneously confessional and enigmatic.
Nothing here strikes me as being quite on a par with such classics as “Hallelujah,” “Tower of Song” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” and there are a few missteps, most notably the bouncy chorus that follows Cohen’s plaintive verse in “Did I Ever Love You.” But the occasional lapse is easy to forgive alongside winners like “A Street,” which Cohen wrote some years ago with former girlfriend Anjani Thomas and which seemingly tells of a relationship in ruins.
If there’s a surprise on Popular Problems, it’s that Sharon Robinson and the Webb sisters, who have played key roles in Cohen’s recent work, don’t show up at all in the credits. The main collaborator is Patrick Leonard, who shares songwriting credits for seven of the nine tracks and provides the spare production. (He also produced Cohen’s last album, Old Ideas, and wrote the emotive music for its most memorable track, “Going Home.”)
The best news here may be that Cohen shows no signs of slowing down—at least not any more than he ever has. As he sings on the opening track, “It’s not because I’m old/It’s not what dying does/I always liked it slow/Slow is in my blood.” And then there’s the album closer, the gorgeous “You Got Me Singing,” in which he proclaims, “You got me singing, even though the world is gone/You got me thinking/I’d like to carry on.”
With an attitude like that and music like this, who knows what could happen? Maybe one day Cohen will take the record from Tony Bennett for oldest living person to top the charts.