Great Source of Comfort: Through the years with Bruce Cockburn
Small Source of Comfort
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
Bruce Cockburn has always been a brave artist. In the 42 years that have passed since the singer and guitarist released his first album there aren’t many musical styles that he hasn’t tried his hand at. Indeed, early indications from the Canadian icon hinted that his 31st album would be a ‘noise record’ with the guitar turned up to eleven, but as fascinating as the prospect of imagining the bespectacled axe man shredding white hot sheets of distorted metallic riffs upon his unsuspecting public may be, his newest release, ‘Small Source of Comfort’ treads familiar – that is to say comfortable – ground. But, one listen through the lovely set of songs and instrumental tracks Cockburn has provided for the faithful this time out should be enough to reassure them that that’s a good thing. A very good thing.
Of course, Canadians need no introduction to Bruce Cockburn – his music has become as deep a part of the Northern experience as the turning colours of leaves in an eastern fall and the first February irises of Vancouver. But, for those people just coming into contact with his formidable body of work, perhaps a little background is in order. The end of the sixties was a heady time for Canadian musicians. When Bruce Cockburn’s first self-titled album was released in 1969, the acoustic folk he played at that time – with its messages of peace, love and simple living – found a receptive audience with people who enjoyed the music of his contemporaries such as Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.
Like Joni Mitchell, Cockburn has never been a musician content to rest upon his laurels or tried and true formulas. Over the last four decades, his music has constantly evolved as his restless imagination continues to seek out new sounds and styles to communicate with. The charming folk songs he recorded in his early career are perhaps best represented by the wonderful ‘High Winds White Sky’ album which was released in 1971. Featuring enduring songs such as ‘Let us go Laughing’ and ‘One Day I Walk’, it is still an album that many of his long time fans list as a favourite. By the mid-seventies, Cockburn began to explore jazz and to embellish his songs with world music textures on albums such as 1975’s ‘Joy Will Find a Way’ and 1979’s ‘Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws’ which featured the breakthrough top 40 hit, ‘Wondering where the Lions Are.’ The song ‘Tokyo’ from ‘Humans’, Cockburn’s next album climbed the charts in Canada and seemed to indicate that mainstream success was just around the corner for the unassuming guitarist.
Where many artists would have been content to follow the course that had been encouraged and rewarded by the marketplace, the success of ‘Dancing’ and ‘Humans’ perversely – some would say – encouraged Cockburn to explore increasingly experimental non-commercial music with albums like 1983’s angry ‘Trouble with Normal’ that showcased his expressionistic spoken word poetry and some very aggressive ‘outside’ guitar work.
Cockburn’s next release ‘Stealing Fire’ was another breakthrough album chocked full of angry political songs like ‘If I had a Rocket Launcher’ and ‘Peggy’s Kitchen Wall’ that descried the human rights abuses of the Reagan era. These vehement outbursts were balanced by more uplifting songs like ‘Contact’ and the still transcendent ‘Lovers in a Dangerous Time’ which later on became a huge hit for The Barenaked Ladies.
As the eighties continued, Cockburn’s output became more fractured. He travelled more frequently into abrasive musical territory as his guitar playing became more edgy and experimental – a situation which resulted in his music sometimes sounding more like John Zorn’s than the feel good hippie melodies that attracted high profile admirers such as Jerry Garcia and Crosby, Stills and Nash. His albums often reflected a struggle to find balance as he mixed the personal and political with songs like ‘Call it Democracy’ and the uplifting ‘Waiting for a Miracle’ which became a concert mainstay for the Jerry Garcia Band in the late eighties and early nineties.
After releasing a series of uneven albums which left his fans increasingly puzzled and perhaps reflected an artist searching for relevance and direction, Cockburn teamed up with T Bone Burnett – a kindred spirit who shared his progressive Christian faith – to produce ‘Nothing but a Burning Light in 1990. Aided and abetted by Booker T. on keyboards, Jim Keltner on drums and Jackson Browne on guitar and vocals ‘Nothing but a Burning Light’ was the album that his fans had been waiting a decade for. With songs like ‘Indian Wars’, ‘Soul of a Man’ and ‘Child of the Wind’, it remains one of the best acoustic albums released in the last two decades. A triumph of songwriting and arrangement, it is the album that many of his listeners consider the high point of his career and deserves a place in everyone’s record collection. ‘Dart to the Heart’ – Cockburn’s next album was also produced by Burnett and featured some very good songs, but it failed to recapture the magic of its predecessor.
From the middle of the nineties to the new century, Cockburn continued to release albums like clockwork as he restlessly alternated between acoustic folk, jazz and experimental music in an effort to find a comfortable place for his muse to dwell. Like many of his long time fans, my interest in his career waned during this period. Though he released some fine albums like ‘The Charity of Night’ and ‘You’ve Never Seen Anything’ during these years, it was easy to get the sense that Cockburn’s best creative years were behind him. Ironically, for an artist known for his biting and insightful lyrics, it took the release of ‘Speechless’ in 2005 – an album featuring instrumental music compiled from various points in his career – to bring many of his old listeners back into the fold. It served to remind them that whatever myriad musical paths Cockburn had wandered down over the last four decades, he remained one of the best guitarists and composers anywhere.
‘Small Source of Comfort’ has just been released and thankfully this newly minted collection of songs and instrumental tracks plays to all of Cockburn’s strengths and is certainly the best collection he’s put out in several years. The songs are primarily acoustic based and feature some wonderful supporting performances from the Brookyln based violinist Jenny Scheinman (Bill Frisell) and some thrilling and intuitive drumming from Gary Craig. But, as with all of Cockburn’s albums – the guitar is front and centre and drives the whole show. In this department, Bruce Cockburn has never sounded better. From the soaring intricate dances that the sixty five year old’s still nimble fingers trace up and down the neck of the guitar to the incredible arrangements and sympathetic recording, ‘Small Source of Comfort’ is a musician’s record from beginning to end.
In terms of structure, the songs are often counterpointed by instrumental tracks that often seem to comment or extend the themes and sentiments of the lyrics. This was a wise move on Cockburn’s part as over the years his lyrics have become more demanding and rhythmically complicated, revealing a subtle conflict between the demands of the words and the suggestions of the melodies. As a result, the lyrics don’t always come rolling like honey off of Cockburn’s tongue. Like a Quaker long held to silence, the singer seems to have reached a point where he speaks when necessary, so that the marriage of words and music isn’t always as graceful as it was in the past. For example, a line like ‘the dichotomy of being a sentient being’ that opens ‘Driving Away’ might read well on paper, but is terribly difficult to pull off in a song. Yet, given time the subtlety and care that Cockburn and Colin Linden – his producer – give to the musical arrangements allow a grace and beauty to emerge once the listener gets past the self-doubt and insecurity that are sometimes inherent to the delivery of the lyrics.
Indeed, Bruce Cockburn’s occasional awkwardness and artlessness have become part of his charm. For every strained phrase about ‘avoiding dogmas’ or being plagued by doubt, there are polished gems that resonate with haiku like simplicity and power. Lyrically speaking, Bruce Cockburn puts himself on the line every time and that’s what separates him from most other artists out there. His poetry remains heartfelt and his words delivered without compromise as forty two years into his professional career he has upheld the courage to ‘put it out there’ and sing about what is on his mind and weighing upon his heart. And, when it works, it works brilliantly. On songs like ‘Each One Lost’ which describes a recent trip to Afghanistan during which he witnessed two young Canadian soldiers who had lost their lives being shipped home, Cockburn’s lack of self-consciousness as well as the humanity he brings to the lyrics allow him to pull off a song which could have easily been marred by maudlin sentiments or obvious finger pointing. Simple, direct and obvious – it is nevertheless a masterful piece of song craft.
Other standout tracks include “Iris of the World’ with its driving melody adding a little levity and bounce to Cockburn’s dark witty observations about cross border travel in the days of peak oil. Listening to it, one continually marvels how Cockburn finds just the right musical phrasing to support his often complex lyrical observations without the whole proceedings veering off into a musical train wreck. On other songs like ‘Boundless’, Cockburn creates a musical soundscape that begins with bells and gongs (I was worried) before devolving into a hyper kinetic amphetamine groove that perfectly complements his beat poetry inspired observations about faith and hypocrisy.
As with all of Bruce Cockburn’s albums there are a few less successful songs. Of these, ‘Call me Back’ is an interesting sketch featuring a great melody that never quite takes off. Really, the only really questionable track on the album is the ambitious ‘Rosie’ – a song that explores what would happen if Richard Nixon was reincarnated as a girl living in poverty in the slums of a large American city. The lyrics work surprisingly well on paper and the music is interesting, but Cockburn never quite successfully merges these diverse elements and the resulting song comes off as less than the sum of its parts.
The most interesting cuts on Bruce Cockburn’s recent albums have often been the instrumental ones. While ‘Small Sense of Comfort’ certainly features some of Cockburn’s best songs in years, the seven wordless compositions he recorded for the album are each staggeringly beautiful and indicate an artist who continues to grow and develop as a musician. Whether one prefers the Django Reinhardtisms of ‘Lois on the Autobahn’ – a tribute to Cockburn’s deceased mother – or ‘The Bohemian 3 Step’ featuring dazzling interplay between Scheinman’s violin and Cockburn’s guitar, there is something to inspire everyone here. Every one of the seven instrumental tracks feature distinct musical ideas and styles, yet taken as a whole they help ‘Small Sense of Comfort’ achieve a seamless flow that has often been missing from Cockburn’s recent albums. Special mention must be made of ‘Comets of Kandahar’ another composition that arose out of the artist’s recent trip to Afghanistan. Reminiscent of the power and scope of Jimi Hendrix’s Machine Gun – Cockburn’s guitar and Scheinman’s violin recreate missiles lighting up the Afghan sky at night as the melody wordlessly communicates the suppressed rage and despair that was only hinted at in the previously mentioned ‘Each One Lost’
‘Small Sense of Comfort’ is a very solid addition to Bruce Cockburn’s already formidable body of work. For those who have loved his music, but lost track of him over the years, ‘Small Sense of Comfort’ is a great reason to jump on the Cockburn bus again and ride it to the end of the line. It is far less of a mixed bag than anything he has released in years and is destined to become one of his classics alongside such highly regarded albums as ‘High Winds, White Sky’ and ‘Nothing But a Burning Light.’ ‘Small Sense of Comfort’ is the album his faithful have been waiting for, and a great starting point for those unfamiliar with his previous work. Highly, highly recommended.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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