I’m reading another Leonard Cohen biography currently: Ira B. Nadel’s Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen, so I’m thinking about the man and his work yet again. The difference between now and when I read I’m Your Man is that I’ve heard a few times Cohen’s most recent album, Popular Problems, released just after his 80th birthday back in September.
I would’ve been content, I thought, for a last glimpse of Leonard in this series, to pick one of the tracks I admire on Old Ideas (2012), like “Darkness” or “Banjo,” but, since Cohen’s is likely to be the most recent release I’ll hear enough to make some comment before this year and this series is done, why not go with something from the new one? It was a hard choice to make because I haven’t actually lived with any of the songs long enough, and because the album’s lyrics seem to be more ambitious than Old Ideas. A song like “Born in Chains” seems to me a major statement of faith by the always slippery Cohen, who is, in his way and more than just about anyone else you’d care to name (of like celebrity, certainly), a true seeker. Cohen has long been an acolyte of Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, his teacher in Zen Buddhism to whom the album is dedicated and who passed away in 2014 at age 97. It no doubt was a landmark event for Cohen who now might be hard-pressed to find someone he can be “junior” to.
Other songs, like “Nevermind” and “Samson in New Orleans” show Cohen to be in a fighting mood, referencing much that is amiss in our general cultural climate, but with an eye to how distorted most of our truths are: “This was your heart / This swarm of flies / This was once your mouth / This bowl of lies” sums it up well, and adding, with resignation more than cynicism, “You own the world / So never mind.” Or: “So gather up the killers / Get everyone in town / Stand me by those pillars / Let me take this temple down.” Elsewhere, Cohen brings his usual wry perspective to bear on themes like aging (“I’m just trying to slow it down”) and the heartbreaking tales of our times (“There’s torture and there’s killing / There’s all my bad reviews / The war, the children missing / It’s almost like the blues”).
The music on the album is surprisingly varied, even surreptitiously so. And though we might think Cohen’s deep, croaky voice can’t alter much any more, we can be impressed by how he can still find different voices for different songs. “A Street” is a great case in point which is almost “a reading” but with very tight pacing, and very precise intonation. It’s like that throughout the album, such as the overly gruff vocal on “Did I Ever Love You,” married to uptempo restatements in a kind of processed Country vibe. Cohen uses his usual artificial sweetener—female backup singers—well, most of the time, since their treatment of the melody, most composed by Cohen’s new collaborator Patrick Leonard, lets Cohen minimize the songs' lyricism in his own vocals.
Cohen has always had a great way with a lyric. “Deceptively simple” is a phrase that comes to mind often, and “surprisingly profound” might be another. Few people can comprise the sanctity of a hymn and the cool bathos of a blues tune in the same song. Cohen can.
For my choice today I went with the final track on the album. In part because I appreciate the violin every time it’s used on this record and “You Got Me Singing” starts with a nice passage from violinist Alexandru Bublitchi. And since my choice of these Songs of the Day has largely been based on what a song means to me, I’ll set aside the songs that I will have to ponder awhile for what they mean to Cohen and what it is he’s saying. Today’s song is one that I can say does speak for me, at the moment.
And, like I said, it’s here instead of the song I quoted at the beginning of this year in a New Year’s response to the question “Quote a song lyric that sums up your year,” Cohen’s “I thought the past would last me / But the darkness got that too.” Maybe nearly a year of these posts gives the lie to that. The past is still there, and I’ve dragged some of it into the light. So that maybe a lyric that I’d quote now would be: “You got me wishing / Our little love would last / You got me thinking / Like those people of the past”—though I’d want to alter the last line to “Of those people in the past.” That’s who I’ve spent a good part of this year thinking about, after all, particularly the makers of song.
Cohen’s song for today is resilient, its attitude best summed up by: “You got me singing / Even tho’ it all looks grim / You got me singing / The Hallelujah hymn.” It’s a reference to Cohen’s best-known song, which says, in a similar vein: “Even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue / But hallelujah.” Fitting enough as we wind down to the final month and change of this trek through the days, to indicate, again, that we’re worshiping at the shrine of song.
As with most of Cohen’s LPs, he tends to end on a lighter note, no matter how intense other songs on the album have been, and I don’t offer today’s song as one of the best Cohen has written, thinking I would like to take on the intricacies of “The Master Song,” “The Traitor,” “Death of a Ladies Man,” “Coming Back to You,” “Closing Time,” at some point (and maybe there’s a project forming in my mind on that score). In any case, I’m with Leonard on this one:
You got me singing
Even though the world is gone
You got me thinking
I’d like to carry on