Cohen’s Polish on the Problem of Being Popular

Of recent times – well, since somewhere round ’67, I’ve rushed to the release of a Cohen album. There has never been disappointment, ‘though occasionally time was of the essence in the ephemeral art of interpretation.

‘Old Ideas’ was perhaps the most difficult for me, although the bobbing banjo appealed enormously – I liked it, but the album unexpectedly gathers dust. And so, suddenly, the news of a new album. I have no answer for my immediate and relaxed lack of interest, other than a seeming exhaustion at the material on offer of Cohen – everybody who ever spied him sitting on a bench from down-town Montreal, to helping clean the sliders in some back street LA studio, has a book of wisdom and intimate knowledge. The marketing man inside me knows the game too well.

Over the weekend, we found ourselves in a large shopping centre and I said to Ann, “Oh well, we might as well see if the CD’s there.” It was, for less than $20.00 we bought it and later left it on the table along with another impulse purchase or two, including a grey concrete owl – maybe there’s a connection there? Anyhow, a much loved guest flew out, we drifted on to a live blues night, came home, collapsed and the sun rose again this morning.

Today has been one of those “Oh, God six loads of washing days”, plus a bit of shopping. Mid afternoon, a glass of wine. “Shall we give the album a try?” I asked of my fiancée (also a Cohen fanatic). “OK,” was her casual reply. The distraction of a phone call would have been almost welcome at that moment in time, but no one called.

Bloody Hell! I’m glad they didn’t! This album is magnificent.

In terms of recent past albums, ‘Ten New Songs’ was stunning, ‘Dear Heather’ was cool, relaxed – it was good to know Cohen was alive. As I wrote earlier, ‘Old Ideas’ was OK, but for me, it went nowhere in particular. I’m leaving out the live concert DVDs etc, they are magnificent memory banks. But this album! Whoa! Something is happening here.

At the blues night last night, we talked with and listened to local bluesman Steve Tallis – he’s played Opening act for Dylan, played with Van the Man, but nobody knows him. Hell the other week, when Dylan was in town, Tallis was hitching back from Perth to Fremantle from a gig, didn’t have the money to buy a concert ticket! Anyhow, we talked of Cohen and Steve said he thought Cohen just kept getting better and better with age. We were of accord on that. Little did we know how true that was.

‘Popular Problems’ for me, is the best Cohen album since ‘Ten New Songs.’ I know fan reaction has been tepid, I’m reminded of Dylan. Remember that live concert so long ago, when Dylan went electric? He wasn’t playing on Maggie’s Farm No More. The audience guy yelled out “Traitor!” Dylan snarled back “Fuck you!” Cohen’s not spraying like that, he’s just moving on, whether die-hard fans want him to or not. Yet there is heartfelt thanks for the years of support as he wandered, all but forgotten by a few of us. Listen to “You Got me Singing,” it’s for you, for me, for all of us.

I get that some will shake heads at the dedication to Roshi. There can never be any excuse for the inexcusable horrors of rape, or paedophilia, but I am uncomfortable with hanging someone for a night or three of heated, sultry, satiating sex with a willing adult partner … or two. Later regret can lead to barren fields of suffocating, highly emotionally damaging quicksand for everyone. The dedication to Roshi seems based on years of learning and friendship, I find that honourable. From a Swinging Sixties male perspective, “My Oh My” sums up a rake’s musing embarrassingly well – I think I blushed!

I love blues music, always have and when the British grabbed it balls and all, way back in the early 60s, they threw it open to the world and had the decency to acknowledge its roots and the early masters. So this album, laced with blues, truth and a sense that Cohen’s polished up a couple of insights he’s had sitting in some old wooden desk, is for me, quite overwhelming – the message is obvious in the photos of the master attending his shoes.

It’s a tiny gem this album. Sure, a couple of instances jarred a fraction – the sweet female voices in the chorus of ‘Did I ever Love You’ haven’t quite worked for me and there is a sense of full scale production, albeit sort of sparse, but hey, that don’t make it junk. If the old guy’s heading that way musically, keep on keeping on.

I thought, no, let me continue in honesty, I had hoped that Cohen would stop touring for his health, his family and his legend. But you know, after just one listen to this masterpiece, I’d give anything to see him do this album as a half hour set in some dimly lit blues club. Just like Dylan, that other genius poet / lyricist / singer / muso, he’s going where he wants to go. My advice, is go with the flow. Magnificent Maestro, you bloody ripper mate!

Greg Ross

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