Liel Leibovitz’s Must-Read Popular Problems Essay: “Is Leonard Cohen’s New Album His Best Yet?”

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You Don’t Have To Be Jewish To Love Popular Problems – But Looking At The Album From That Perspective Couldn’t Hurt

Liel Leibovitz, author of A Broken Hallelujah, has written a smart, insightful, and accessible essay on Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems album that uses Judaism as a prism for apprehending the methodology and significance of Cohen’s songwriting genius.

Excerpts:

Think of [Leonard Cohen's] new album, Popular Problems, as dawn on Mount Baldy, inviting you into a sparsely decorated landscape that nonetheless gives you all the discipline and all the space you need to contemplate the questions that are truly worth considering.

Here he is, for example, in “Almost Like the Blues,” reciting over a piano track that manages to be at once sober and seductive: “So I let my heart get frozen /To keep away the rot /My father said I’m chosen /My mother said I’m not /I listened to their story /Of the Gypsies and the Jews /It was good, it wasn’t boring /It was almost like the blues.” It is, first and foremost, a funny line: Is Cohen chosen? Depends on which of his parents you ask. But if it’s a joke, it’s a cosmic one: The very nature of chosenness, the spiritual engine of Judaism for millennia now, is that our seminal moment at the foothills of the mountain came with no instructions. Who’s chosen? For what? For how long? Can we be unchosen? Are our children chosen by default? God never says, leaving us to wonder for eternity what it means to have been chosen. In the meantime, all we can do is guess and make up stories—and songs—that are good, that aren’t boring, and that come as close as is possible to the pure emotional convictions of something like the blues, as transcendental an art form as we’ve got. This sort of songwriting is harder to pull off than you’d think. Any other artist looking at the mirror and seeing himself at the peak of his success might have been tempted to become, as one Israeli rock journalist put it, the Shimon Peres of rock ’n’ roll, dispensing platitudes and enjoying the comfort of his laurels. But Cohen is remarkably unsentimental. Lighter on his feet now than he’s ever been, he delivers his line with humor and with charm, but he’s still as committed as ever to the role that has made him mean so much to so many of us, namely that of the chronicler of the secret particles of truth and beauty most of us are too dense to absorb.

Read the complete article at Is Leonard Cohen’s New Album His Best Yet? by Liel Leibovitz (Tablet Magazine: Sept 19, 2014)

Songs For The Next Leonard Cohen Album (Unpopular Solutions): Do I Have To Dance All Night

Leonard Cohen’s Next Album

As I pointed out in Songs For The Next Leonard Cohen Album: Feels So Good,  Leonard Cohen has told interviewers and Popular Problems preview audiences that he is already at work on his next album. This account from The Guardian is representative:

Some of the songs on the new record [Popular Problems] came together at “shockingly alarming speed”, Cohen said, and the duo have already finished “half of another” LP.

Heck, he’s even announced, as reported by Q Magazine,

The next record is going to be called Unpopular Solutions

So, I’m getting my recommendations in before Mr Cohen polishes off the final four or five tracks on that next album.

Do I Have To Dance All Night Crusade Enters 9th Year

Recurrent readers may know I’ve promoted this song since publishing The Best Leonard Cohen Song You’ve Never Heard (Probably)  on July 6, 2006. For those who have somehow been missed by this campaign, here’s the story:

Although Cohen sang “Do I Have To Dance All Night” frequently during the 1976 and 1980 Tours, it was been for retail purchase only as a seven inch single, originally recorded at a 1976 concert in Paris and pressed in Holland for sale in Central European countries.1 That’s a shame because, as I’ve noted, …

Do I Have To Dance All Night is a great song because it is quintessential Cohen: it’s evocative, it’s plaintive, it’s self-effacing, it’s sly, sexy, salacious, and seductive, … it is way cool.

Of course, that’s just one guy’s opinion. Listen to the song yourself.

Be aware, however, that if you happen to be as infatuated with Do I Have To Dance All Night as I am, you may find yourself spontaneously singing, at the most unexpected times, the refrain of

Ooh tell me, Bird of Paradise,
do I have to dance all night?

This can be a wonderful thing if it happens, for example, while one is dancing and the words are sung just barely above a whisper through lips that are almost touching a sweetheart’s ear. If it takes place in the middle of ones presentation on shower curtain sales trends in the Midwest, not so much.

There is more information at that first post and at least 25 other entries that have to do with the song.

As part of my crusade to popularize this song,  I’ve cobbled together two videos – one for the semi-funky 1976 version with Laura Branigan and one for the more gypsy, less disco 1980 version – from segments of Cohen-associated videos and photos that kinda sorta fit the music.

Leonard Cohen – Do I Have To Dance All Night (1976)
Video by Allan Showalter

Leonard Cohen – Do I Have To Dance All Night (1980)
Video by Allan Showalter

  1. The record’s cover art, I now believe, is based on the scene that followed the woman’s accusatory query, “Is it true that ‘Do I Have To Dance All Night’ won’t be included on an album?” Why else would Leonard Cohen look remorseful? []

Official Lyrics Of Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems Album Now Online

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Not quite certain about a word or two when you listen to “Samson In New Orleans?” Puzzled over a phrase in “Nevermind?” Well, there is good news. The official lyrics of the songs from the Popular Problems album are now available online. So, delight in Leonard Cohen’s genius, ponder his rhyme schemes, win bar bets, …

The lyrics can be perused at LeonardCohenFiles – Popular Problems

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Note: The wordle atop this post displays the 150 most frequently used words (with common words such as “the” and “a” removed) from the lyrics and titles of the songs on the Popular Problems album. The frequency of a word’s use is proportional to the size of the typeface for that word.

Songs For The Next Leonard Cohen Album: Feels So Good

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Leonard Cohen – Rosemont Theater, 2009

Leonard Cohen’s Next Album

I suspect some folks may wonder why I’m already focusing on Leonard Cohen’s next album.The answer is simple – it should be out any time now. Consider this report from The Guardian:

Some of the songs on the new record [Popular Problems] came together at “shockingly alarming speed”, Cohen said, and the duo have already finished “half of another” LP

Consequently, if the next album is to benefit from my recommendations, the time to make them is now.  And, I do have a couple of songs on my personal wish list, including today’s suggestion, …

The Other Blues Song – Feels So Good

Leonard Cohen first performed this song in concert at the October 29, 2009 Rosemont Theatre (Chicago) concert. I was lucky enough to hear it twice that day, once at the concert itself and, a few hours earlier, at the soundcheck.

The soundcheck was already underway by the time we had been credentialed and had wended our way through the backstage labyrinth to the auditorium. Shortly after we had settled into our seats, Leonard Cohen1 brought the song they were playing to an end, saying, “Let’s try the other blues song.”

Following which, I heard – for the first time – the song beginning, “Feels so good, … .”

I heard it again, from better seats but in a less exclusive environment, during the concert that evening.2

Writing the post about the Rosemont concert, it occurred to me to refer to it as Cohen did during soundcheck, which is how the title for the first post to mention the piece became Leonard Cohen Premieres “The Other Blues Song” At October 29, 2009 Chicago Concert.3

Eventually, of course, the song came to be known as “Feels So Good” for lots of reasons. I came around when it began appearing on the stage setlists as “Feels So Good.”

Leonard Cohen – Feels So Good
Rosemont Theatre – Chicago: Oct 29, 2009
Video by albertnoonan

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  1. Or, as I then identified him mentally, “That is really Leonard Fuckin’ Cohen” []
  2. The depth of my respect for Leonard Cohen is evidenced by the fact that when I recognized the song during that night’s performance from the first bars played, I did not arise in my seat, turn to the audience, and announce “You have never heard this song before – but I have.” []
  3. For the reasons I thought this was a good idea and other background, see How Leonard Cohen’s “The Other Blues Song” Got That Name []

Listen To Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems Now Via NPR

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Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems now streaming free of charge via NPR First Listen.1

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  1. I was able to connect from my location in the US. It appears to work in the UK, Australia, and Europe as well.  I do not know, however,  if this site can be reached from all countries. []

Baby, Baby, Baby – All The 1985 Leonard Cohen Norway Videos Are Back Online

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Now You See Them, Now You Don’t, Now You Do, … The Spectacular Leonard Cohen Kalvøya Videos

In 2009, Heck Of A Guy posted Baby, Baby, Baby – Leonard Cohen & Anjani Sing The Blues In Norway celebrating the YouTube appearance of three spectacular videos, “I Tried to Leave You,” “Heart With No Companion,” and “Story of Isaac,” taken from a TV broadcast of a 1985 performance by Leonard Cohen in Kalvøya (“Isle of Calf” – near Oslo), Norway. The color and clarity of these recordings were outstanding, the performances, with Anjani on the keyboards and vocals, were  solid, and watching these videos was moving, exhilarating, and fun. Since then, the videos have reappeared and been removed at least once. Then, in 2013, some of the Kalvoya performances, including “Memories,”  a performance not previously available, were uploaded to Daily Motion. Sadly, “I Tried To Leave You” was missing.

Until now.

NRK has put their entire broadcast of the festival online, including all four Leonard Cohen songs: “Memories,” “Heart With No Companion,” “Story of Isaac,” and “I Tried to Leave You.” In addition, a brief interview with Cohen is included.

lc-mem2And, with his hair slicked back, his beard stylishly scruffy, a cigarette in one hand, and a microphone in the other (note the dramatic microphone dip at 1:58), Leonard Cohen’s matinee idol persona, typically used in the performance of “Memories,” has never been more enjoyable.

Good Afternoon, My Darling
I Tried To Leave You

While all the songs are interesting and well worth watching, the most entertaining and intriguing of the lot is “I Tried To Leave You.”

Anjani’s Mean Streakin’ Pearl of the Pacific Blues

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Then as in the 2008-2013 tours, “I Tried To Leave You” is used as a showcase for the band members’ talents. Unlike the more contemporary rendition of “I Tried To Leave You,”1 however, the 1985 version is performed as a blues number.

Also Starring …

The video of “I Tried To Leave You” also features an impressive display of guitar skills by band members, Leonard Cohen in stylishly scruffy mode2 improvising lines and being crowned with a wreath of laurels, and a huge crowd of incredibly wholesome-looking, uniformly well-behaved Norwegians.

The Boys In The Band

“I Tried To Leave You” also serves as background for Cohen’s introductions of the band members which are generous and laudatory as those he performed in more recent concerts. He creates a couple of titles congruent with those he has used for band members in the World Tour. His 1985 drummer, for example, is designated the “Master of Surfaces” while his 2009 counterpart, Rafael Gayol, is labeled the “Prince of Precision” or “Our Timekeeper.”

In addition to Anjani Thomas on keyboards, fans are likely to recognize Mitch Watkins, the guitarist on the recent Cohen tours.

Only The Lonely

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And then as now, he has a special concern for those alone. Since 2008, it often took the form of this blessing, “May you be surrounded by friends and family, and if none of these is yours, may the blessings find you in your solitude. ” In 1985, however, he urges his audience to remember him and his band “… even when you find yourself alone in your room making passes at yourself.”

The Video

The video cannot be embedded here but can be viewed at Det er fest på Kalvøya igjen (Kalvøyafestivalen 1985)

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Note: The contents of the entire video are displayed below the viewing screen.  One can access the desired sections by clicking 0n those headings (see highlighted “Leonard Cohen – I Tried To Leave You” section in above screen capture)

Credit Due Department: I was alerted to this video by a Facebook post authored by Gordana Stupar

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  1. For example, see the 2009 Belfast performance “I Tried To Leave You,” which is the first video in the post, Leonard Cohen – Best Of Belfast. []
  2. Think “Miami Vice,” a 1986 episode of which would feature Cohen. See Leonard Cohen, Miami Vice Guest Star []