I’m guessing you can divide Bruce Cockburn’s followers into two camps: Those who are excited to see the titles “This Is Baghdad”, “Jerusalem Poker” and “Peace March” on his new album, and those who get a case of the “Rocket Launcher” willies. I must confess I’m in the latter group. Lord knows, we need popular artists speaking out against foul government policy and on behalf of the oppressed. But Cockburn, the most earnest singer-songwriter of his generation, tilts toward stiff self-righteousness when he makes headline statements.
As it turns out, though, even with its bitter indictment of the effort in Iraq (“Carbombed and carjacked and kidnapped and shot/How do you like it, this freedom we bought?”), the string-darkened “This Is Baghdad” is more stirring than rabble-rousing. And “Jerusalem Poker” and “Peace March” are instrumentals. After 36 years of making records of consistently high quality, Cockburn has embraced restraint.
At its best, Life Short Call Now mines Cockburn’s tidy melodic gift and the baleful, atmospheric, jazz-tinged reflections he mastered on the underappreciated 1997 disc Charity Of The Night. The arrangements are deft: The sparing use of a string orchestra adds color and emotional weight; the dreamy “See You Tomorrow” features harmonium, celeste, and Ani DiFranco; and Julie Wolf’s keyboard arsenal (including accordion, harmonium, organ, Fender Rhodes and Wurtlizer) continually expands the reach of this folk-based music.