Album: Popular Problems
Artist: Leonard Cohen
“I saw some people starving
There was murder, there was rape
Their villages were burning
They were trying to escape
I couldn’t meet their glances
I was staring at my shoes
It was acid, it was tragic
It was almost like the blues”
– Leonard Cohen, “Almost Like the Blues”
It’s refreshing to find humour in a Leonard Cohen album right from the clever title, not just because his songs have long been couched in a kind of nihilist twilight but also because, contrary to expectations, the humour actually works?It’s dark, dry, and never awkward or silly. And it does much to lighten the deeply serious subject matter that comes in its wake.
Humour is an effective buffer for the content of this album, which perhaps more than any other Cohen disc examines his personal take on his Jewishness and manifests an honest but cavalier stance toward anti-Semitism?both the anti-Semitism of history and the anti-Semitism That’s been burgeoning lately in response to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
What’s always been so wonderful about Cohen is his sincerity. Just when you think he’s posing he shows that the elegant, romantic, poet-lover is the real McCoy and not just a media invention (an image with which he’s sometimes amused but which he’s never disputed).
In “Almost like the Blues” he makes a typically oblique reference to what It’s like to be a diaspora Jew today; heir to a rich but painful history, and now blamed for the sufferings of the victims of the Zionist agenda.
There are many sides to this dilemma. If I understand “Samson in New Orleans” right, It’s an expression of the Jew’s bitterness and rage at having been “captured” by an enemy society and shorn of his strength.
“Nevermind” seems to be the offhand end-of-life remarks of a Nazi, minimizing and undermining truth even as he seems to want to come clean. He reveals his own callous hypocrisy as well as the hypocrisy of those, including his former victims, who chose to follow in his footsteps.
With “Born in Chains” Cohen lifts the tragedy of his existence to lofty heights.
“I’ve heard the soul unfolds
In the chambers of its longing
And the bitter liquor sweetens
In the hammered cup
But all the Ladders
Of the Night have fallen
Only darkness now
To lift the Longing up”
And thus we’re left with the kind of hope and transcendence that only darkness can bring.
Cohen loses points for using the same type of rather insipid female backup singers he’s always used, but hey, he’s already done it this way, and he gains the points back for hiring a great sound engineer.
It’s also a huge plus that the website gives you the lyrics of each song, because they’re all worth contemplating at length, as I did as a teen with his early albums over crackers and chamomile tea.
If anything, time and experience have made this wonderful poet even better equipped to bring us meaning and delight in this vale of tears.
Popular Problems manifests six of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for albums well worth hearing.
– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
– It’s about attainment of the true self.
– It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
– It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.