I think this is a good Leonard Cohen album, but not a great one. I've listened to it many times now, and although I like it, I think it lacks some of the lyrical depth and musical richness of Old Ideas, which I thought was a masterpiece.
I have always found Cohen at his best when he's looking at things obliquely and sounding obscure and allusive; he seems to have a genius for conveying profound things while not making it at all obvious what he's saying. Often in Popular Problems, he's being much more direct in his language which for me – perhaps perversely – robs it of some of its power. For example, Almost Like The Blues (one of the best tracks on the album, I think) opens with the lines, "I saw some people starving/There was murder, there was rape/Their villages were burning/They were trying to escape." Now, this is important stuff and certainly worthy of Leonard Cohen's attention, but as song lyrics they're pretty crude. I'd expect something a good deal more subtle and therefore evocative from a poet of Cohen's quality, and I felt similarly in quite a lot of places throughout the album.
In fairness, he does produce some great moments, including his usual twinkling self-mockery ("There's torture and there's killing and there's all my bad reviews…" for example) but it's inconsistent, and songs like My Oh My sound like filler by Cohen's standards.
I feel similarly about the music. It's OK, I like it overall, but it's pretty ordinary. The production is rather pedestrian and the impact of Amen, the wit of Different Sides or the genuine beauty of Lullaby are much harder to find here. There is almost a sense of re-hash in places, too – the opening of Samson In New Orleans is remarkably similar to Show Me The Place, for example – and there's little here which moves me in the way that some great Leonard Cohen albums have.
I don't want to sound too harsh. This is a perfectly decent album which bears a lot of the Cohen trademarks that we know and love, but it's not the superb album Old Ideas is – not by some distance, I'm afraid. If, like me, you're a decades-long Cohen fan you will want this and I think you'll like it. I like it, too; I just don't love it.
Review by Sid Nuncius