Leonard Cohen made it hard for me to work today.
This Monday started like many do in late September—sun pouring through the leaves, green but tinged with the hints of yellow, orange, and amber soon to come; a slight briskness in the air that hints at the cold soon to come; and me visiting NPR First Listen and squealing with glee at the albums soon to come.
At the top of the First Listen page, there's a black-and-white shot of Lucinda Williams, badass as ever in her leather jacket, heavy eyeliner, and a look in her eyes like she’s either just knocked out a man or put back a double shot of bourbon, maybe both. (Lucinda, I'll get to you soon!)
I scrolled down: Perfume Genius! Mapei! Sondre Lerche! And finally, LEONARD COHEN.
Because Mapei has one of the catchiest pop songs I’ve heard in quite some time (“Don’t Wait”), I listened to her album first. And while I think the reviewer got a bit heavy-handed with the whole theme of ear-candy/candy/pop music/sugar, “Don’t Wait” certainly has that “kick of cayenne” that makes a caramel go from merely tasty to memorably delicious. Which is to say, okay, I get it. Overall, it’s definitely a pop album I’ll return to, even though the second half starts to feel a bit flat, and I could really do without the majority of Mapei's rapping.
Back to Leonard. Prior to his 2012 album, Old Ideas, I was a scattered and halfhearted fan at best. I realize of course that this admission would make most Leonard Cohen fans snort, or pat me on the head and say, “Okay, dear.” That said, ask me how many fucks I give, now as well as then. I was too busy, at the time I was falling in love with Old Ideas, writing lyrics from “Different Sides” in my journal and committing them to heart (“Both of us say there are laws to obey/but frankly, I don’t like your tone/You want to change the way I make love/I want to leave it alone”).
I fell in love with the low growl of his voice, his lyrics (!), and his backup singers. I listened again and again. I revisited his old songs, the albums I’d once listened to halfheartedly, and marveled at my former self. Who was I, that I wasn’t enthralled by “Dance Me to the End of Love,” “In My Secret Life,” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”? I guess it’s no different, really, than how I now cringe at the memory of the Good Charlotte poster that hung in my college dorm room in 2002.
Our tastes change and adapt over time. Today the trees outside my Chicago window are full of yellow- and orange-tinted green leaves, but too soon, there will only be bare branches. Leonard Cohen’s voice sounds pretty much nothing at all on both Old Ideas and Popular Problems like it did in 1969 on Songs from a Room.
It feels fitting that the 80-year-old musician—yes, he turned 80 years old, yesterday, Wikipedia informs me—would release his latest album, Popular Problems, in the fall. A season, that for me at least, marks some of my happiest and saddest memories, and for those of us in Chicago, some of our last days of warmth as another winter looms. As I wrote several years ago, “the air has that crisp, cool feel once again. It's my favorite time of year, but it also makes me feel homesick as well. Not even homesick, exactly, but more like longing for something lost, a place that no longer really exists.”
Of course, Leonard puts it better, on one of my favorite tracks from the album, "Did I Ever Love You?":
Was it ever settled
Was it ever over
And is it still raining
Back in November
The lemon trees blossom
The almond trees wither
Its spring and its summer
And its winter forever
This album is packed with songs that tackle everything from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to torture, killing, and all “my bad reviews,” and even though it—tragically—is a mere 36 minutes long, Leonard’s clearly in no hurry. After all, he kicks off the album with “Slow,” a song that feels equal parts sexy and self-deprecating, and all parts fucking terrific.
The seasons will change, as will my tastes and probably yours, but I can guarantee that my still-recently acquired love of Leonard Cohen is here to stay.
“It’s almost like salvation; it’s almost like the blues.”
Popular Problems comes out tomorrow.