Who's King Of Pop Now? The last, best laugh is Leonard Cohen’s (New York Times)

February 12, 2012

This is my favourite Old Ideas album review published in The New York Times (here)

Who’s King Of Pop Now?

Published: February 11, 2012

There are things that do not happen in the real world. Noam Chomsky becoming president. Unflattering photos of Jennifer Aniston. Apple doubling the price of iPhones so its Chinese assemblers can work a 40-hour week.

Or Leonard Cohen, at 77, occupying the No. 1 position in music at Amazon.com for his just-released “Old Ideas.”

And yet Mr. Cohen not only vaulted to the top of Amazon music last week with his new collection of songs, he stayed there for a week, until Adele — who has already sold 7.5 million copies of her latest release in the United States alone —  got a second wind and sent him reeling down to No. 4.

Nothing about Mr. Cohen’s late-life success readily computes. His range as a composer is limited; as he has noted, “People said I knew three chords when I knew five.” His vocal range is even more limited. A fan got it exactly right when he said, “No one can sing a Leonard Cohen song the way Cohen himself can’t.” The dirge-like songs and midnight voice that result are an easy target for reviewers. He’s “the poet laureate of pessimism.” “The grocer of despair.” “The godfather of gloom.” “The prince of bummers.” And, inevitably, “music to slit your wrists to.”  

And this codger is, however briefly, the King of Pop?

Yes, and the joke’s on Pop. Our absurd political and media squabbles have created a vacuum of gravitas. That has turned Leonard Cohen into a trending topic, and for the simplest of reasons: he’s an authentic seeker. And Mr. Cohen’s not the only musician with a fan base that spans decades. Look at the Amazon music best-seller list: Adele is 23 years old , but just behind her are Paul McCartney (69), Eddie Van Halen (57), Mr. Cohen, an Amnesty International tribute to Bob Dylan (70) and Bruce Springsteen (62). Further down the list: 85-year-old Tony Bennett’s collection of duets. Honorable mention: Paul Simon, now 70, for his 2011 collection, his best in 25 years.

Until the last century, there was no expectation that artists would constantly change styles and messages. It was enough that they did something well. Over time, with work and grace, they saw more, went deeper, gave their audiences greater satisfaction. Now art is like fashion. Careers have stages. Novelty and astonishment are now synonymous with art.

The musicians who top the Amazon list are fully formed. In 1962, Mr. McCartney began writing his generation’s best pop songs; he still has the touch. Mr. Springsteen has been standing up for the forgotten since the mid-’70s. Mr. Dylan says he now has to work conscientiously to produce songs that used to drop into his hands, but he gets it done.

These are our elders, making mature music for an audience hungry for maturity. And one of the oldest of these elders leads the pack. The last, best laugh is Leonard Cohen’s.

Jesse Kornbluth is the editor of HeadButler.com.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on February 12, 2012, on page SR3 of the New York edition with the headline: Who’s King Of Pop Now?

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