Listen to this track by Montreal-born poet, novelist, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. It’s “Almost Like The Blues”, the first single from his new record Popular Problems, released this year on the anniversary of his 80th year on earth; September 21st. The record follows 2012’s Old Ideas, which was the highest charting release of his entire career along with extremely positive reviews across the board; not bad for a guy in his late seventies at the time.
By then, there’d been an eight-year gap in releases. So, this new record and its single has enjoyed some momentum in terms of its creation riding the wave of his previous one. Yet despite this success, Cohen is still dealing in the shadows when it comes to subject matter.
And where does this new song fit into to things where Cohen’s intimidatingly potent back catalog is concerned?
This landscape of shadowy corners and dark thoughts has been Cohen’s stock-in-trade of course, with many of his most famous works combining themes of sex, religion, death, and political upheaval into a melancholic, noirish whole. Maybe this is why it’s not so jarring for a man now 80 to still be writing songs in this vein; these are primal subjects, and made more potent when it’s the voice of experience singing them.
Popular song has always been thought of a young person’s game, with those who are getting long in the tooth looked on with suspicion for trying to milk the glories of their youthful past. This is particularly true of the rock era, when vital music is so entwined with teenage ideas of virility. Leonard Cohen has had the advantage where this is concerned. His debut record came out in late 1967 when he was an elderly thirty-four years old, and during a time when no one was meant to trust anyone over thirty. He was old from the get-go! It’s of no surprise or shock that he should be making music now that he’s 80. Of course, that his new songs are as vital as it ever is the true deciding factor, as it should be. This new music carries that which makes his body of work to be among the most consistently exceptional in the modern era.
One thing that was undeniable even when he debuted at the end of the 1960s, and even more so now, was something that Cohen manages to put across better than most: authority. When he sings, we believe him, even if we don’t want to believe him. A big part of this is his voice, a limited instrument that is singularly compelling just because it is so limited, although its low resonant timbre isn’t to be underestimated in terms of its ability to charm. But, another aspect of Cohen’s authoritative voice is that he traversed a different path from his contemporaries in relation to his work, coming at a recording career from a completely opposite direction.
Leonard Cohen was a poet and novelist before he became a songwriter, unlike his fellows who were either inspired by novelists and poets first, or aspired to poet and author status themselves once they became songwriters. When it came to literary credibility, Cohen had it in spades before the tape ever started rolling, publishing his first volume of poetry in 1956 (Let Us Compare Mythologies), with a succession of novels and poems to follow into the mid-1960s. Pretensions to literary greatness entertained by other songwriters were something Cohen had worked through even before his debut, freeing him up just to write great songs when it came time to put out a record.
That’s just as true here as it always was been, with the writer still looking through a jaundiced eye and balancing the worlds of the political, the spiritual, and the sensual together. The world of “Almost Like The Blues” is a dark one, with global poverty, violence, and oppression being the backdrop, while in the foreground we’re treated to the narrator’s own foibles and flaws on a personal level; bad reviews, murderous thoughts, and a frozen heart that is necessary to keep a broken world at bay.
Yet the invitation to the sinner has been given in this song, and we once again see that destruction and tragedy have a kind of dark romance about them that we as a species find attractive when we express it in art, and repulsive when we experience it for ourselves; almost like the blues indeed.
Catch up to Laughing Len, and wish him a happy 80th birthday at Leonardcohen.com.
Thanks to Sony Music Canada for sending along a download of the new record.