Cockburn Returns

Cockburn Returns

Jim Heald


After six long years, Cockburn has a new album of original songs and what sounds like a very successful tour in progress.  In those six years, we’ve had a box set spanning his entire career and one of the more substantive rock autobiographies to hit the bookshelves in many years.  He’s also moved to the United States and become a father.

  So, what exactly does Bruce have to say to the world in his 72nd year?  Pretty much the same kinds of things that he’s been saying for most of the last 40 or 50 years.  This album has his most explicitly Christian songs since the 1970’s, excepting Cry of a Tiny Babe and his cover of Soul of a Man[1].  How he’s saying it hasn’t changed that much either, at least for the last 25 years.  There’s a strong sonic resemblance to the music he’s been making since his collaborations with T Bone Burnett in the early 90’s.  He’s also been collaborating with Colin Linden during that same period, both as bandmate and producer, so that makes sense.

Bruce has been making music for a very long time and he knows how to get it done.  And he’s made, in my opinion, more than a few great or very good records over the course of his career.  Even when a record hasn’t been great, we’re often left with one or two great or very good songs.  But his last truly great song, Put it in Your Heart[2], came out almost 15 years ago and four studio albums ago.  I’m not sure that any of the songs on this record rise anywhere close to that level, but this is a very solid album and is probably his best since You’ve Never Seen Everything.  The best songs on Small Source of Comfort, his last studio album, are probably the instrumentals, particularly Lois on the Autobahn and Comets of Kandahar, though you can make an argument for Iris of the World and Each One Lost.

This album is wonderful to listen to.  The musical performance and production seem to me to be more fully realized than the lyrics on most of the songs and he’s got top notch players to help him out.  That’s a bit of a letdown for me, since his music has long been known for how the lyrics and the music work together to form a more perfect whole.  So, this review may sound more negative than I feel about the listening experience. On top of that, I’m still digesting this album, so my thoughts are likely to change some as I continue to listen.

Bruce calls States I’m In a “dark night of the soul song” that moves from sunset to dawn as the story unfolds.  That’s all very fine, but I don’t feel terror or existential dread in the words.  In fact, the anecdotes are mostly cartoons, such as being “a drunk trying to shinny up a greased pole.”  This is not to say that it’s a bad song, but something a little closer to the bone might have been much better.  In the chorus, he starts out singing “Oo-ee all the sights I’ve seen” and “Oo-ee all the places I’ve been.”  None of those places or sights make their way into this song in the form of arresting images and that’s a shame.  The filler “Oo-ee” doesn’t add much of anything, either musically or substantively. At least when Van Morrison used a similar phrase in Wild Nights, he doubled the “Oo” and stretched out the phrasing to give it some punch. Still, the overall music and performance of this piece draws you in and starts us on an engaging musical journey.

Stab at Matter is an elliptical retelling of the story of the crucifixion and resurrection.  The title is a play on the Latin Stabat Mater, a 13th Century hymn about Mary’s anguish at witnessing the crucifixion (Thanks to Rupert Loydell for pointing that out in his review).   But the lyrics and music are upbeat, focusing on how by “stab[bing] at matter” we “set the spirit free.” The music is sharp and focused.

Cockburn specifically references a sermon on Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness as the inspiration for the song Forty Years in the Wilderness, but he’s obviously aware of the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert before they made their way into Canaan.  And lest we forget, it also rained for 40 days and nights in the story of Noah and the flood.  Forty is one of those magic numbers in the Judeo-Christian tradition. 

According to a comment he made in a recent interview, after he heard the sermon he thought that it had been about 40 years since he had been a regular church goer and the song began to flow. So, one superficial meaning of the song is that he views his life outside a formal church as being “in the wilderness.”   And he says in the first line, that he had spent that time “getting to know the beasts,” or the humans that populate the globe.  A great example of that process of getting acquainted is his song You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chances, from the early 1980’s[3], but his social and political songs of the last 40 years are a catalog of the good and bad in all kinds of humans.  And lest we think of “beasts” in the pejorative, recall that he said in one of his early 90’s songs that we, as humans, carry the “burden of the Angel beast.”[4]  Or think of how the wise beasts in his song In the Falling Dark[5] teach us about the gift of grace.

In the song, he hears spirits telling him that “you could go to heaven, you could go to hell/you could hang out in between in the place you know so well.”  In the context of the song, it’s clear that staying put is not a good thing.  This is an ode in favor of movement, though it isn’t entirely clear what the purpose of the movement is, just that he must “cover some ground before everything comes undone.”  It seems like he’s telling us that almost any movement is better than getting stuck or simply standing in one place.  The beginning of the chorus – “take up your load/run south to the road/turn to the setting sun” – seems a little weak to me.  They are certainly directions for some sort of movement and they happen to be very, very rough directions for getting from Ontario to San Francisco, but I’m not sure as a listener that it really connects with me.

The press release for the album tells us that this song “ranks alongside ‘Pacing the Cage’ or ‘All the Diamonds’ as one of Cockburn’s most starkly beautiful folk songs.”  That’s an awfully high bar for any song; just go back and listen to those two songs[6] or read the lyrics and come back to this one.  Despite some interesting thoughts and lines, this song isn’t on that level. 

Café Society is a song made up of snippets of conversation overheard in a coffee shop and is a good example of the journalistic style that he has used so well, particularly in his travel songs.  The conversations reflect a deep anxiety about the state of the world that seems very appropriate in America right now, in the age of Trump, particularly in places like San Francisco.  The song was written in late 2015, so presumably the anxiety would be a lot higher today, with talk of Russian interference in the election and the possibility of Nuclear War with Korea.   But he still manages to squeeze in the disappearing bees, Islamic terrorists, globalization, tsunamis, and “crazy-ass policemen shooting everything that runs.”  Hopefully, this will all wind up as a bad dream and we can again sing Wondering Where the Lions Are with relief.

In any event, the song bounces from the local and trivial to the global and menacing.  And the music bounces along with an engaging bluesy rock beat.  Bruce fills in the background with ragged harmonica and there are beautiful riffs blowing in on coronet from Ron Miles.

I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t call 3 Al Purdy’s “a brilliant, six minute epic,” as the press release hyperbolically proclaims.  It’s hard exactly to say what it is, although it seems to be a very effective Bruce Cockburn song and no doubt was a good fit for the documentary film that it was written for.   The biggest hurdle, at least for American listeners, is likely to be not knowing anything about who Al Purdy is.  I don’t know anything more than what is in Wikipedia, so it’s probably enough to know that he was a very popular Canadian Poet.  It also helps that Cockburn opens and closes the song with 28 lines of Purdy’s poetry, which at least gives us some point of reference.[7]  The middle part of the song, two long verses and a coda, tell the fictional story of a homeless man who recites Purdy’s poetry on the street.

The rhythm of the song is very much like a train, a low-key chugging like riding the rails through the Canadian Rockies and Western prairies.  Interestingly, if you think back to the earlier song Forty Years in the Wilderness and the idea that almost any movement is better than getting stuck, he quotes this contradictory thought from Al Purdy:


After a while there is no arrival and
no departure possible any more
you are where you were always going
and the shape of home is under your fingernails.


We can run, but we can’t hide.  The words of Al Purdy are deep and Cockburn matches them with some of his best and deepest lyrics on the album.  The quote is also slyly religious.  No doubt Bruce noticed the similarity between this passage:


And after the essence of everything 
had exchanged itself for words and became 
another being…


and the passage from John Chapter 1, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.”  I don’t know enough about Purdy to say that he was particularly religious, but the words chosen here are a clear nod to the indwelling sacredness of all of nature, particularly the rivers, mountains and forests that have always been dear to Bruce.

The conceit of it being the rant of a homeless person allows Cockburn to make some pointed remarks about economics and schools, but also to make a point about the reach of Purdy’s poetry.  It appeals to the little guy, probably more than to the “cultured” reader.  But with the changing of a couple of words and phrases, it seems to be as much a song about Bruce and his love of words, as well as a wry commentary on the intersection of art and commerce.

Looking and Waiting alludes to at least a couple of  Bruce's previous songs, most explicitly the menacing Scanning These Crowds and Great Big Love[8].  Is it a song about God or a song about a missing lover? It could be either and the ambiguity turns this simple song into a much deeper and more complex one.  Bruce called it a song of “faith and frustration,” but that doesn’t rule out looking and waiting for something that’s missing in the human realm.   Bruce has hinted elsewhere, discussing the possibility of a “love particle,” that connection is at the heart of the universe and therefore inherently spiritual.

Bone on Bone, to my ear, bears some resemblance to his song Mistress of Storms.  It’s not as long or as intricate but there are similar things going on.  The title supposedly is a reference to arthritis, a not uncommon malady for aging guitar players.  I suffer from the same, though I haven’t worked my fingers nearly as hard over the years as Bruce has.

Mon Chemin is Bruce’s first song in French since Badlands Flashback off 1979’s Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaw.  He also spoke a couple of lines in French in the great song Loner from 1981.  The song picks up some similar themes to Child of the Wind[9], though it’s darker.  The reference to lightning might also be a reference to St. Paul, like the anecdote he recalls in The Light Goes on Forever, “Uptight lawyer on Damascus road/ becomes a nexus where the light explodes…”[10]


One reviewer called the song False River “gorgeous” and there are certainly elements of the music that fit that description.  The opening solo interplay between Bruce on guitar and the other players, particularly the upright bass of Robert Occhipinti come to mind.   That instrumental bit recalls, just a little, the Middle Eastern vibe of his song Wait No More[11].

But should we have beauty or outrage here? To me, this is a subject that calls for outrage. The verses aim in that direction with the staccato rhythm and phrasing and their description of a protest.   The river is reminiscent somewhat of another river, the English River, from his meditation  in Gavin’s Woodpile[12], though his words and tone are a lot angrier in the earlier song.    There is a deep resignation and even exasperation here in lines like:


we can spend it [the life blood of the earth]
till we end it
while the heat climbs up the graph
till we're panting
like a salmon
with its gill hooked on a gaff…

and finally, “on our own heads be our doom.”  Basically, we’ve blown it and the earth is not going to rebound from the relentless and systematic destruction perpetrated by man.   As with States I’m In, there’s a similarity to the phrasing he uses in other recent songs like Iris of the World or Life’s Short Call Now[13].

The chorus to the song is particularly “gorgeous,” with the beautiful backing vocals and perhaps that’s the problem, if there is one, with it.  The beautiful refrain distracts from the appropriate outrage of the verses rather than focusing and underlining the message.  Something more direct, like Call it Democracy or even If a Tree Falls[14], might be more the jolt that we need at this point in time.

Jesus Train is simply one of Bruce’s most joyful songs ever.  It is also one of the most explicitly Christian songs in his catalog, certainly since the 1970’s.  There isn’t a hint of any other religious tradition in the lyrics as has been common in his spiritual songs since the 1980’s.  It also perfectly captures the childlike wonder of riding a fast train into the city for the first time.  Though different on many levels, compare this to the writer who loves “the pounding of hoofs” and “engines that roar” in his song Child of the Wind[15].

The closing 12 Gates to the City is a traditional gospel tune.  I hear a vague similarity to the music of Kit Carson[16] (obviously not the theme), perhaps just the way he plays the 12-string guitar and the sound that it makes with the bluesy shuffling rhythm.  The beautiful coronet work adds a nice New Orleans edge to the gospel blues.  Bruce is trying, particularly with his added verse, to make explicit his vision of heaven as open to all people, an inclusive multi-cultural urban heaven, echoing his song To Raise the Morning Star[17] where the light rising from the dreamers is “singing for the yellow and the brown and the black/For the red and the white people, too.”  This city and song is an appropriate terminus for the journey that this record has taken us on.

I’m not sure that Bruce has broken any new ground on this record, but it is good to have him back as a companion on these roads of the earth and of the spirit.  The flow of the music is clearly more important, or perhaps more fully realized here than the lyrics.  One reviewer suggested that it captures his live sound better than any previous album and I’d have to agree with that.  It’s stripped down to its essence instrumentally, but still very full and toe tapping.  Lyrically, there are hints of greater depth to be mined going forward as he looks and waits, scanning the skies.  Here’s hoping that there is more and even better to come.

Jim Heald recently published a revised and expanded version of World of Wonders: The Lyrics and Music of Bruce Cockburn.  The book is available from Amazon.  It might make a good Christmas present for the Cockburn fan in your life.


[1] From Nothing But a Burning Light.

[2] From You’ve Never Seen Everything.

[3] From Inner City Front.

[4] From Dart to the Heart.

[5] From the album of the same name.

[6] The songs are from The Charity of Night and Salt, Sun and Time.

[7] It would have been very nice for the liner notes to tell us exactly which poem or poems Bruce was quoting from.  Perhaps some ambitious listener who knows Purdy’s work might let us know at some point.

[8] From Dart to the Heart and Nothing But a Burning Light.

[9] From Nothing But a Burning Light.

[10]  Bonus Track from Inner City Front (2002 reissue).

[11] From You’ve Never Seen Everything.

[12] From In the Falling Dark.

[13] From Small Source of Comfort and Life’s Short Call Now.

[14] From World of Wonders and Big Circumstance.

[15] From Nothing But a Burning Light.

[16] From Nothing But a Burning Light.

[17] From Stealing Fire.

Leave a comment