Cohen’s last three remarkable albums:
Old Ideas, 2012
Popular Problems, 2014
You Want It Darker, 2016, released 19 days prior to his death.
Listening again to Popular Problems this morning early, one of his three summing-ups. As when he was at his best, the lyrics are simple and pared to the bone. (The Patrick Leonard arrangements likewise.)
The first song is “Slow” which is about his overall approach to life and love. “Almost like the Blues” begins with a view of our apocalyptic world with all its pain, suffering, violence, and the speaker’s consciousness of world/social problems too great for one individual to significantly affect change. The pessimism seeps so far as his own cynicism about the existence of God and heaven and the whole effect of the song is “almost like the blues”, a typical ironic Cohen understatement.
The third song, “Samson in New Orleans”, is a more powerful response to America and the “killers” in which the speaker takes “this temple down” with an assumed Samson strength and anger.
“A Street” (co-written with Anjani Thomas) is another Cohen love song-retrospective about a memorable relationship that ended when the woman moved on and changed, leaving Cohen with unexpected responsibilities. As he says the party’s over, a certain “culture” has ended, and the people involved have moved on–Cohen very much aware of his being a survivor.
“Did I Ever Love You” also looks back at a relationship, but with more tenderness and less bitterness. “My Oh My” is another very direct, simple poem in the same vein: “Wasn’t hard to love you/Didn’t have to try”.
“NeverMind” is another unique examination of a past relationship (the same one?) which explores how the lovers differed and the variations of death and new life that followed.
“Born in Chains” is a deep religious resolution of an imperfect life that nonetheless was about the struggle for an individual soul.
The last song, “You Got Me Singing” is Cohen’s own antidote to all the despair and failure described in the previous songs. Somehow, magically, he is still able to give voice to his hopes and aspirations that he finds when confronted with aging, relationship changes, and death.
Overall, Popular Problems draws the listener in with its simplicity, honesty, and truth about familiar situations and how one individual has dealt with them before his engagement with life finally completely disappears or evaporates. After this album, life could only get darker for Cohen as he fully engaged more with God, his religion, and more purely spiritual matters on the last album, You Want It Darker.
Consider Popular Problems to be his real goodbye to others, the physical/social world where he had lived so much of his life–the world which had informed his large life as poet, balladeer, and chronicler of what he repeatedly referred to as ‘the man and the woman’.