There’s no reason, of course, why an artist should slow down at 80. If the mind is still sharp — and, as in Leonard Cohen’s case, the bank account still a bit low, thanks to a larcenous financial adviser — a singer-songwriter should be able to soldier on. But the danger is obvious: If the singer sinks into self-parody, or simply runs out of things to say, no one may have the guts to intervene.
That’s not a worry with Cohen, whose new album Popular Problems brims with his trademark wit. The arrangements are simple and sparse, with some slow rhythm and blues urgency, but it is Cohen’s voice that surprises. The words are more spoken than sung, the delivery is gruff, and he sounds more bluesy than ever: Not bitter, not angry, but deeply fatalistic, and at times, just raunchy.
The defiant tone is set in Slow, which opens his 13th studio album with a paean to lovemaking (and possibly music) conducted at a languid pace. “It’s not because I’m old, and it’s not what dying does, I always liked it slow, slow is in my blood,” he says, drawing out the last word.
The familiar sound is augmented by the backup singers Cohen has long used for both irony and emphasis, and the production by co-writer Patrick Leonard gives Cohen the space he needs to fully express his moods. Some of the themes are grim, dealing with dislocation and loss — including a mournful post-Katrina elegy for New Orleans — but he never sounds defeated.
There is no sense that Cohen is running out of gas, or passion. If anything, he sounds more joyful than in earlier incarnations of his long career, which started with the publication of his poetry in Canada in the 1950s. The nine-track Popular Problems closes with You Got Me Singing, a celebration of spirit that forecasts more work ahead: “You got me singing even though the world is gone, you got me thinking that I’d like to carry on,” he whispers. It sounds like a promise he intends to keep.