When I was a kid, 40 was old.
And when I say old, I mean ancient. Decrepit. Moments from shuffling off this mortal coil. I took to heart that old saying about never trusting anyone over 40. I mean… four decades, man. That’s a long, long time to be walking this earth. And of course, along with advancing age comes a loss of passion and creativity. Art and expression are for the young. The tired, broken-down fogeys should get out of the way.
Of course, now that I am 40, my perspective has shifted somewhat. Truth be told, I never really bought into the notion of a sell-by date for artists, which is one reason sites like Pitchfork annoy me – they’re in constant pursuit of the next thing, the new young standard bearer, and they tend to ignore the older and more established artists. They save their breathless hype for the 17-year-old who just learned to play two chords on a guitar, while I have long enjoyed the thrill of truly digging into an extensive, deep catalog.
You want a good example? Well, if there is some magical age at which musicians should pack it in or risk embarrassment, no one seems to have told Leonard Cohen. He’s 80 years old now, and from the sound of his 13th album, Popular Problems, his extraordinary third act is just getting started. It’s no secret that Cohen returned to the road 10 years ago because a shifty former manager depleted his retirement accounts, but he’s clearly found himself with more to say. His work since 2004 has not been obligatory, it’s been revelatory.
Cohen has always been a poet of sex, spirituality and suffering. His voice, always more of a sonorous speaking instrument, is now a ruined low rumble, a whisper away from crumbling, and it adds an air of weathered wisdom, a been-there quality that can’t be faked. It’s true that Cohen never needed any help sounding authentic, but his voice on Popular Problems brings even more weight to these weighty songs. Even better, Cohen spends this record collaborating with Patrick Leonard, who wraps these songs in witheringly beautiful organic clothes. All but gone are the cheesy synths Cohen has always loved, and in their place, a lovely, low-key band feel.
The songs win the day, but of course they do. Cohen delivers a mission statement with leadoff track “Slow,” inviting you to linger with him over these nine minor-key meditations. “It’s not because I’m old, it’s not what dying does, I always liked it slow, slow is in my blood,” he whispers, and the record (hell, his whole career) bears this out.
From there, Popular Problems tackles familiar territory for Cohen, but as always, he finds new ways to make his themes captivating. “Almost Like the Blues,” the dark and dreamy single, finds him looking out at a lost world, then shying away: “I saw some people starving, there was murder, there was rape, their villages were burning, they were trying to escape, I couldn’t meet their glances, I was staring at my shoes, it was acid, it was tragic, it was almost like the blues…” In the same song, he draws a comparison between torture and killing and “all my bad reviews,” and then points heavenward: “I’ve had the invitation that a sinner can’t refuse, and it’s almost like salvation, it’s almost like the blues…”
You could spend weeks just diving through these lyrics. It is often the music that surprises most on this record, though. Perhaps the finest song here is “Did I Ever Love You,” which begins as a lament, Cohen stretching that rough voice to meet a graceful melody, then flips backwards into a quick-step country number with vocals by Dana Glover. “Samson in New Orleans” floats up on a spectral solo violin. “Never Mind” might be more familiar ground – it’s a bass-driven spoken piece – but it stands out thanks to some delightful percussion and tribal backing vocals. This song is the sharpest here, Cohen dipping into the darkness in his soul, and yet finding it wanting in comparison with the world. “There’s truth that lives and truth that dies, I don’t know which, so never mind…”
Popular Problems finds a home for “Born in Chains,” a song Cohen has been working on for at least 25 years. It’s a dark gospel song, the kind he writes like no one else: “Word of words and measure of all measures, blessed is the name, the name be blessed, written on my heart in burning letters, that’s all I know, I cannot read the rest…” You can hear how grateful he is to have this one out, on the page, and into the world. But he does not end the record with this. The final track is “You Got Me Singing,” one of the most hopeful numbers in his catalog. It’s a psalm, an ode to moving forward, and it even references “Hallelujah,” the song for which Cohen is best known. “You got me singing, even though the world is gone, you got me thinking I’d like to carry on,” he sings, and it’s a gorgeous, hard-won sentiment.
I’d like Cohen to carry on, too, if the result is more little gems like Popular Problems. Any new record by Leonard Cohen will carry with it the significance of his perspective, his legendary perch among the greats. But unlike others of his generation, Cohen is still creating breathtaking, powerful art, still delivering work that stands with his very best. He’s a treasure, now more than ever, and Popular Problems is proof that there is no age at which the muse stops speaking.
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John Mellencamp is 17 years younger than Leonard Cohen, but on his new record, Plain Spoken, he sounds much older. It’s the Indiana roots-rocker’s first new album in four years, and easily his most traditional offering, sticking to a pretty typical strum throughout. Mellencamp’s voice is a wreck, ravaged by years of abuse, but unlike Cohen’s, his rasp doesn’t add anything to these tunes. It’s easily the most boring thing the man has made.
So why am I still interested in it? Because Plain Spoken is a shockingly dark, intensely personal piece of work, and Mellencamp’s willingness to lay his own helplessness, confusion and depression into words is commendable, if not enjoyable. He’s never been the most hopeful of writers, even back when his music had a kick – the hook line of “Jack and Diane” is “life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone,” remember. But since turning 60, Mellencamp has seemingly been fixed on death, when not lamenting his divorce after 18 years of marriage, and those two circumstances have resulted in something almost painfully bruised.
“Troubled Man” may be a character sketch, like those Mellencamp wrote for Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, but it sets the tone: “Anxiety and sorrow underneath my skin, self-destruction and failure have beat my head in, I laughed out loud once, I won’t do that again…” Later, he says that “too late came to early for me to face myself,” and announces, “I won’t do anything but hurt you if I can.” It’s a particularly despairing way to begin this record, and that doesn’t let up on “Sometimes There’s God,” a song about the randomness of life. “Sometimes there’s God and sometimes there’s just not, a little redemption would help us a lot, sometimes there’s God in the palm of your hand, some days hard times will cover your land…”
“The Isolation of Mister” seems to reference Mellencamp’s divorce in the bitterest of ways: “So many knots I did not untie, they came undone by my faults, and here’s the reason why, saw so many lovers walk out that door, never cared about being lonely because I didn’t love you no more, I said go away, go away…” “Tears in Vain” picks up that ball and runs: “I guess I should know better than to cry these tears in vain,” Mellencamp sings while Mike Wanchic’s electric guitars ring out.
Mellencamp’s gaze turns outward in the back half of the record – “Freedom of Speech” is about exactly what you’d expect, while “Blue Charlotte” tells the story of a man holding his lover during her last days. He brings things to a close with “Lawless Times,” the rawest rocker here. This song finds Mellencamp looking out his window and finding nothing but awful: “You can’t trust your neighbor, husband or wife, can’t trust the police with their guns or their nights.” He even calls out those who would pirate his tunes: “If you want to steal this song, it can be easily loaded down…” The fact that this is the funny song is telling.
I’ve been a Mellencamp fan since before I started buying my own music, and I have never heard him sound so beaten down, so fatalistic. Plain Spoken is not an enjoyable album, but it is a fascinating one. Mellencamp sounds old here, like the subject of “Blue Charlotte,” knowing he’s in his twilight years and just giving in. It’s shocking, it’s depressing, and it’s still oddly compelling. I would never recommend this record, but for some reason, I keep listening.
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If you want the very picture of aging with almost superhuman grace, though, you’ll need to turn to 66-year-old Robert Plant.
Here’s a guy who changed the world with Led Zeppelin, still one of the most celebrated rock bands in history, and then spent the next 35 years just doing whatever the hell he wanted. Synth-pop records? Sure. Scoring hits during the age of hair metal, then delivering a sharp turn with his horn-driven Honeydrippers project? OK. A duet album with Alison Krauss that completely redefined him in the eyes of many? Absolutely. To Plant, it’s all music, and he’s been on a constant quest to find new songs to sing, new atmospheres in which to float that wonderful, high, worldly voice. He’s never taken a wrong turn, never made an embarrassing record.
That streak continues with Lullaby and the Endless Roar, his 10th solo album, and his first with his new backing band, the Sensational Space Shifters. The mission of this group seems to be to combine as many influences from around the world as possible into the lovely, almost ambient creations that fill this record. I hesitate to call this album low-key, because it isn’t, really. But if you’re looking for rock songs, even those that filled 2010’s Band of Joy, you won’t find them here. This record is built on slow, space-y dirges that work more on mood than anything else.
Plant’s voice is still the fulcrum around which all of this turns. He dances up and around the single-note foundations of songs like “Pocketful of Golden” and the wonderful “Embrace Another Fall,” and turns restrained balladeer on “A Stolen Kiss.” The best moments of this record are the ones where the huge wall of sound drops away, leaving Plant’s voice to carry things. He turns in a lovely performance here, holding back the histrionics and just letting the notes flow out. The Space Shifters prove to be one of the finest, most interesting bands he’s ever had at his disposal, building on their grooves with all manner of fascinating instrumentation, including electronic drum loops – check out the futuristic dusty ramble that is “Turn It Up.”
Plant remains a student of music, seeking out traditional songs to update and writing new ones that sound centuries old, just as he did in Zeppelin. Lullaby opens with “Little Maggie,” a traditional folk song that Plant and the band completely reinvent with dance beats and banjos, and “Poor Howard” sounds so much like an old folk song that it sent me to the liner notes to confirm that it’s an original. The fiddle work on this one is particularly nice. This sense of history roots the album deep in the earth, which then gives it the freedom to expand sonically in all directions.
The result is yet another swell Robert Plant album, continuing one of the most idiosyncratic and compelling solo careers I can think of. I hope I’m still saying that when he’s Leonard Cohen’s age, and still putting out albums as good as this one. Age means nothing when you still have something to say, and can still say it this well.
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OK, it’s time for the Third Quarter Report. Essentially, this is what my top 10 list would look like if I were forced to publish it right now. The fact that the Cohen and Plant records reviewed above do not appear on this list should tell you what kind of quality year it has been. (Cohen came very close.) And when the quality is high across the board, my personal taste comes into play more than anything. Typically my third quarter list strongly resembles my final one, so if you want a preview of December, here it is.
#10. Nickel Creek, A Dotted Line.
#9. Andrea Dawn, Doll.
#8. Coldplay, Ghost Stories.
#7. Dan Wilson, Love Without Fear.
#6. Elbow, The Takeoff and Landing of Everything.
#5. Sloan, Commonwealth.
#4. Beck, Morning Phase.
#3. The Choir, Shadow Weaver.
#2. U2, Songs of Innocence.
#1. Imogen Heap, Sparks.
For now, these are the 10 records I like best. Anything can change, however, and we have new things coming from some highly respected artists, including the new Quiet Company. I tend to listen and re-listen more intently near the end of the year, too, so some of these might not end up in the final list. We shall see.
See you in line Tuesday morning.