While in Montreal after Easter, I started wandering the cold, empty streets of Cohen's old neighborhood to get a feel for the vibe that shaped his quotidian experience. Over and over, I found myself drawn back to the chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Secours in the Old Port. This is "our Lady of the Harbor" that shapes so much of Cohen's break out song, "Suzanne." I haunted used book stores and music shops, too in search of poetry collections and biographies. For three full weeks I was en pèlerinage à toutes choses Cohen. Upon returning to Montreal in June, the quest matured and I was able to add more CDs to an expanding collection. Yesterday, after listening straight through to Popular Problems again for the first time in three years, I must confess to be a willing supplicant in service to this shaman's magic. Three songs stand out for me:
+ First, "Slow," a laid-back blues shuffle built on a rock solid electric piano groove, punctuated with periodic punches from a horn section and Hammond B-3. It is swampy and sassy, spiritual and sensual, personal and political all mixed up together like real life. (Hence the album's title, Popular Problems, yes?) The opening stanza evokes the wisdom of one who has learned that "the first shall be last" or what some speak of as the great reversal of ego and power: those in a hurry to win will be brought low. It sounds sexual when Cohen moans his lyrics, but this verse cuts beyond the obvious:
I'm slowing down the tune, I never liked it fast.
You want to get there soon,
I want to get there last
In various positions, Cohen plays with this tension confessing: "I'm lacing up my shoe but I don't want to run; I'll get there when I do, don't need no starting gun. It's not because I'm old, it's not what dying does, I always liked it slow, slow is in my blood." The horns punch out their riff, the organ interrupts our concentration and then the maestro returns. "So baby let me go, you're wanted back in town; in case they want to know I'm trying to slow it down." This is how Cohen opens the curtain on this album: both the feel and the flow of "Slow" weave throughout Popular Problems, sometimes taking on a country incarnation, other times a New Age funk sound. But each song is constructed on the same foundation.
+ The second tune that tears me apart is "Nevermind." If "Slow" is playful, :"Nevermind" is grim. Both truths are never far apart in Cohen's world. "The war was lost, the treaty signed, I was not caught, I crossed the line. I was not caught though many tried, I live among you, well disguised." A synthesized dance club riff over a drum machine drives the song deeper, insisting in a relentless way that the story of suffering and betrayal is told over and again "with facts and lies... there's a truth that lives and a truth that dies; I don't know which so never mind." Is this about war? Is this about love? Is this about the brutal cycle of birth and death that Quooleth laments at the start of Ecclesiastes? Or the tragic whispers of a defeated idealist beaten into submission and now living underground?
All of this indifference some call fate
Be we had names more intimate
Names so deep and names so true
They're blood to me
They're dust to you...
Adding to the troubling allure of "Nevermind" is the voice of a woman chanting "Salaam" in Arabic at weird intervals. Cohen heaps stark and challenging couplets one upon the next - "this was your heart, this swarm of flies, this was once your mouth this bowl of lies" - his female back-up singers sweetly urge the song forward with oohs and ahhs - when seemingly out of no where comes a plaintive prayer for peace punctuated with a soulful horn section and Middle Eastern hand drums. A genius at disarming us, Cohen offers a disturbing and heart-breaking composition that is laced with prayer. Brilliant.
+ I cherish the country ballads on this album and love the laments of love, too. His tribute to his Jewish roots took 40 years to complete and "Born in Chains" is worth the wait. But my third stand out song on Popular Problems has to be "Almost Like the Blues." Not only is this vintage Cohen clarity, it is a sorrowful elegy for the human condition. 21st century people may believe that there is more human suffering in the human family than ever before, but Cohen reminds us that agony is timeless. We sense that there is more cruelty but we only see what has always been given our technology.
"There is no G-d in heaven, there is no Hell below
So says the great professor of all there is to know
But I've had the invitation that a sinner can't refuse
It's almost like salvation, it's almost like the blues...
The blues - cries of anguish that liberate, songs that evoke joy from our sorrow and inspire us to shake our booty in the face of what cannot be changed - all at the same time. Pure Cohen genius. There is humility being expressed here because Cohen will not engage in crass cultural appropriation. The blues begins and ends in the African American experience. Yet as BB Kind has said there is also a universality to suffering that responds to the blues. Bone once said of King David's psalms in the Bible: David wrote the first sacred blues and played the first blues harp. Cohen knows this truth in his soul and keeps telling us that whether its gypsies or Jews, people starving or trying to escape oppression, life is often like acid in its tragic proportions: indeed, it is almost like the blues.
In a 2002 interview with Spin,Cohen spoke of an insight he learned during his years studying Zen.
Roshi said something nice to me one time. He said that the older you get, the lonelier you become, and the deeper the love you need. Which means that this hero that you're trying to maintain as the central figure in the drama of your life—this hero is not enjoying the life of a hero. You're exerting a tremendous maintenance to keep this heroic stance available to you, and the hero is suffering defeat after defeat. And they're not heroic defeats; they're ignoble defeats. Finally, one day you say, 'Let him die—I can't invest any more in this heroic position.'
The universality of letting go of illusions and unhealthy expectations fills Popular Problems
with powerful alternatives to both sentimentality and cynicism. The hymn-like qualities of these compositions give this song cycle a timeless quality too. Once, when asked if he was religious, Cohen replied: "I am in the sense that I know the difference between guilt and grace." This distinction is exposed in spades on this recording. Check it out!