The late afternoon isn’t the most appropriate hour to visit the rainy, alley-bound and lovelorn world of Leonard Cohen — but if the man is going to show up, then to the venue you go. Here, the occasion was a listening party for Cohen’s Popular Problems — Cohen’s 16th full-length, to be released next Tuesday (Sept. 23) — held at the thankfully dark and intimate Joe’s Pub. It was a Catholic procession for a poet of the soul, as attendees sat rapt and reading and respectful. Popular Problems finds Cohen leaning wholly into the aging serration and wear in his chest. But he’s as smooth as ever.
The record, nine songs over 36 minutes — “We felt the impact would be diluted,” Cohen responded when asked, after his record was played, whether the record’s brevity was meant to be an homage to the length of LPs — was produced and written in collaboration with Patrick Leonard, a producer best known for his work with Madonna. Cohen’s work has always tended toward the minimally gigantic, with a contained grandeur and compositional lushness that lets his inimitable voice take the fore, a voice that has tricked, or charmed, so many into identifying and moving to some truly heavy, literary writing. (Tom Waits is somewhere scrunching his nose, smiling.)
Patrick Leonard obviously knew better than to raise the volume above a rumble, as on “Did I Ever Love You,” an old-western saddle song that would slot precisely into a John Wayne film — except for everything that Cohen brings into it.
“I don’t remember much,” Cohen said of working on the record. “The thing I cherish about the work is the done-ness. When it’s finished I develop a benevolent amnesia about the project. We worked diligently for a months and, surprisingly, it came to a point of completion. At this point, most things are a blur.”
Cohen’s deep charm was in full effect at the session, which closed with a promise: that the 79 year-old would, on his 80th birthday (this coming Sunday) would take up smoking cigarettes again. “Yes — does anybody have a cigarrette? Seriously, does anybody know where you can buy a Turkish or Greek cigarette around here? I’m looking forward to that first smoke, I’ve been looking forward to for about 30 years. It’s one of the few consistent strains of thought I’ve had.”