Deluge! Catching Up with Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams, Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga

popularproblemsMuch as I’d love to offer up a quick roundup of some of the fine, moving new records I’ve heard in October—and there are several noteworthy titles, believe you me—the truth is that I’ve not even shared my thoughts on all the significant new titles from September. That’s sort of embarrassing—because I’m so far behind—but also sort of great: Proof enough of what a rich year this has been, and continues to me.

There are actually just three titles left scribbled in my September music journal, and not yet covered on this blog; not quite a deluge on par with the last one, then, but a small and steady rainfall, at the very list. All three titles are worth your time:

  • I’ll start with the most surprising of the bunch: Popular Problems, new from Leonard Cohen. To be perfectly candid, Coen’s previous offering, Old Ideas, left a bad taste in my mouth; it remains one of the worst-produced albums I’ve ever heard, and the songs seem to fetishize death as much as they look for meaning in life. Popular Problems is something altogether surprising, then: While we may never hear an actually well-produced, musically rich Leonard Cohen album, this is the closest we’ve yet come, the album actually sounding like it was recorded live with real musicians in places; even when Leonard sticks to the synthesizers, he keeps things feeling fresher and more organic than he has in a long time, and even borrows some motifs from folk, blues, and country. But what’s best, of course, are the songs—funny, intimate, philosophical, political, and often quite moving—nowhere more so than on “Born in Chains,” which is a straight-up Easter song whether Cohen realizes it or not. Opener “Slow” is the perfectly wry, knowing Leonard Cohen anthem, while “You Got Me Singing” is an unspeakably moving, affirming closer. A beautiful and brilliant record—and the most surprising thing I’ve heard this year.
  • Another wonderful surprise: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, the double album from Lucinda Williams, and an absolute rock and roll monster. It’s too easy to call it her Exile on Main Street, yet the cliché fits—for the album’s sprawl, for its lived-in American roots feel, and even for its soulful use of gospel singers, here and there. The album opens with a lyric penned by the singer’s father, an invitation to empathy and compassion, and that sets the scene for a series of stories and sketches about characters who are often down and out, lost on the wrong side of love. The songs are direct and cut straight to the bone, lyrically and musically, and that leanness (a weird thing to say about a double album, I know) is what makes the album so appealing.
  • Finally, there is the not-at-all-bewildering collaboration from Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, entitled Cheek to Cheek—which plays not a bit like a novelty, but simply like a very fine, elegant, often lively set of big band duets. The songs are all standards that we know by heart, but so what? The arrangements are not radical reinventions but they are certainly lush, elegant, and—most critically—deeply More to the point, though, Bennett and Gaga are perfect vocal foils: She’s a gifted jazz singer, and if she oversells a song or two, well, it contrasts nicely with the unflappable, totally laid-back Bennett. It’s a lot of fun.
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