Monday, September 22, 2014

Cohen v Cohen

Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems (Sony)

Leonard Cohen is the most successful 80-year-old musician still putting out new records and selling out stadiums (sorry, Willie Nelson and Tony Bennett).

So what are these “popular problems” of which Cohen speaks? “There’s torture and there’s murder / and there’s all my bad reviews / it’s almost like the blues. ”

I guess the blues aren’t as bad as horrific crimes against humanity, and maybe they’re worse than ruffling some rock critic’s feathers.

Cohen has battled the blues all his life: he suffered bouts of clinical depression until the late 1990s. Cohen—who is older than Elvis Presley would be today—has also resisted blues music and anything resembling rock’n’roll for his entire recording career; he was trained on Spanish guitar, not a blues scale (there’s a very strange amalgam of the two in the opening of 2012’s “Darkness”). Other than the occasional flash of country music, his musical mind has usually been drawn to Old Europe. That changed on 2012’s Old Ideas, and it’s even more pronounced here, where at least half the songs are stripped-down blues songs—delivered, of course, not with guitars, but electric pianos and (of course) plenty of female backing vocals. The simpler, the better—especially on “Nevermind,” a one-chord piano vamp with little more than a four-on-the-floor bass drum and strings that sting like Isaac Hayes.

Old Ideas producer Patrick Leonard returns, and proves to be perhaps the most complementary collaborator Cohen has had since John Simon produced the debut album. As we know, when Cohen is left to his own devices in the last 30 years, he favours presets on dollar-store keyboards. Patrick Leonard co-wrote eight of the nine songs (the other, “Born in Chains,” has been simmering for 40 years, says Cohen; indeed, it sounds like it’s from Various Positions), and arranged them with Cohen’s live band—especially keyboardist Neil Larsen—employed sparingly and for maximum effect. Cohen’s early 2000s albums with Sharon Robinson were—to her chagrin—sterile and static. These, on the other hand, crackle with life: the band has soul, and, almost shockingly, so does Cohen, whose sub-baritone gets even more luxurious with each passing year—if that’s at all possible.

If Old Ideas had Cohen drinking from darkness’s cup, he’s in a relatively sunnier place here. Not just when mocking his own blues or his rep as a morose mumbler (“I’ve always liked it slow”), but when he puts a bonafide spring in his step in “Did I Ever Love You” (his most rousing song since “Closing Time”), and concludes the album by telling us, “You got me singing / even though the news is bad.”

When you’re his age and still making some of the best work of your career—and apparently, just like he was when Old Ideas was released, he’s already halfway through yet another record—the news is never bad.

Download: “Nevermind,” “Almost Like the Blues,” “Did I Ever Love You”

Adam Cohen – We Go Home (Universal)

Adam Cohen sings, “If things get heavy / just put your bags down.” Young(ish) Adam has some serious and obvious baggage, because of inevitable comparisons to his father (see above). So: seriously? Did no one at Universal check the release date for the paterfamilias? Would Jakob Dylan ever think of putting out an album within a week of Bob? Would Sean Lennon ever piggyback on some Beatles reissue? They’d just be asking for more trouble than they already have.

Adam Cohen is not a dabbler; he’s spent more than 15 years as a professional musician and has some minor hits to his name (and yet: name one). There is nothing about We Go Home that is inherently awful. But there is also precious little that leaves any kind of impression at all, except when young Cohen comes clean and directly addresses the shadow under which he lives: “They will speak of my father when he is not around … When I consult a mirror / it’s both of us I see … I will speak like my father / when he’s not around / you will hear his voice / like you’re hearing it now.”

Except that based on existing evidence, there’s no reason to believe that Adam Cohen is ready to fill any kind of void.

Download: “Love Is,” “What Kind of Woman,” “Fall Apart”

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