Outside his native Canada, where he’s pretty much worshipped as a deity, singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn is most commonly viewed as something of a reliable workhorse. In a lengthy and productive career, he’s never broken through to mass success nor attained the kind of obsessive cult following of such similar artists as Nick Drake, Jimmy Spheeris or Leonard Cohen. He’s a widely respected songwriter and guitarist of distinction, but for most of his career he’s been overlooked or taken for granted — when major magazines have bothered to take note of him, the article is nearly always entitled “Rock’s Other Bruce.” And even that title was briefly taken away from him by Bruce Hornsby during the mid-’80s (which, ironically, was the period of Cockburn’s greatest popularity).
Cockburn’s career has progressed through many stages — Nick Drake-style hippie folkster, jazz-rocking Christian mystic, left-wing art rocker wanting to blow shit up, roots rocker. What’s been consistent throughout are his sometimes moving, sometimes clunky, poetic lyrics; his distinctive baritone voice; and his outstanding guitar playing, which impresses more through intricacy and imagination than it does through power or showboating.
Cockburn’s self-titled debut is a lovely album of Drakean folk music which shows some promise but is nothing special compared to similar artists of the time. High Winds, White Sky is much better thanks to the first stirrings of the Cockburn persona — mystical spirituality and an interest in roots music. New Orleans style piano turns up on several tracks, as do blues riffs. High Winds, White Sky is a high point of the first phase of Cockburn’s career.
Sunwheel Dance is a diversion into Celtic folk not far removed from Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span — Cockburn’s experimental quest to find a signature style takes another step with Night Vision, which has a darker style, a full band and one of the first songs considered a classic by fans: “Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long.” Salt, Sun and Time returns to the acoustic feel of his debut, but his guitar playing is beginning to acquire subtle complexity. Highlight: “All the Diamonds in the World.” Joy Will Find a Way continues in the vein of Salt, Sun and Time, and contains the excellent title track. Cockburn is starting to get somewhere now, as his folk rock is beginning to take on a jazzy feel.
The stylistic experimentations of Cockburn’s first six albums coalesce into a cohesive whole on In the Falling Dark, his first completely excellent album. The music is complex and elaborate, more of a mix of jazz and rock at this point, although folk elements remain. What’s more, his mysticism becomes openly Christian on the title track and “Lord of the Starfields.” The most important of his early albums and one of his best.
Having seemed to reach the point he’d been working towards, Cockburn paused to recap with the live Circles in the Stream. He consolidates his sound on The Further Adventures of Bruce Cockburn without adding any new wrinkles. The album’s high point is “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” (the title of which was later lifted for the Primitive Radio Gods’ wholly unrelated mid-’90s hit). Mostly, though, The Further Adventures of Bruce Cockburn feels like a pause before a plunge into a new phase.
Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws commences the period of Cockburn’s most impressive work and the longest sustained period of mainstream near-success. Religious ecstasy is the overarching theme of the album, which features the brightest and most inviting music of Cockburn’s jazz-rock phase. He scored a minor US hit with “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” still one of his two best-known (and best) songs — a lovely folk-rock number about the peace and contentment of faith. “Creation Dream,” “Hills of Morning” and “No Footprints” are similarly excellent. The album’s main weakness is that most tracks follow the same structure — Cockburn plucks out simple riffs on his acoustic guitar while the other musicians provide relaxed jazz rock accompaniment. Fortunately, though, it’s a good template, and Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws is one of Cockburn’s most personable, enjoyable albums.
Humans takes a darker tack, as Cockburn focuses on darker subject matter. Reggae emerges as a newly important influence in his music, especially on the divorce lament “What About the Bond?” and “Rumors of Glory.” Militaristic and political imagery crops up in the beautiful travelogue “How I Spent My Fall Vacation.” The aftermath of a car accident causes Cockburn to ponder mortality and the clash of cultures on the mesmerizing “Tokyo.” He confesses his failings and promises to do better on the hopeful “Fascist Architecture.” Humans is a thoughtful, complex album, and is the best of Cockburn’s career. A truly great album.
He followed that triumph with two minor albums. The new wave style of Inner City Front and The Trouble With Normal has aged badly: even such superior songs as “The Trouble With Normal” (“The trouble with normal is it always gets worse”) are burdened with heavy-handed synthesizers and period percussion. Both albums feature enough good stuff to make them worthwhile to Cockburn fans, but can be safely skipped by less-devoted listeners.
Cockburn returns to form with Stealing Fire, which very nearly equals Humans. Prior to the album, Cockburn traveled extensively through Central America, and what he saw shook the pacifist Christian to his core, leaving him confused and angry. Stealing Fire is the first of Cockburn’s explicitly political albums; if some of the lyrics are no longer timely (especially “Nicaragua”), the lean art-rock retains its musical power. With the exception of the clumsy “Maybe the Poet,” Side One is excellent. “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” is one of Cockburn’s best songs and contains one of his most memorable and oft-quoted turns of phrase (“Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight / Got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight”). On Side Two, Cockburn focuses his wrath on the thugs running nations he’d traveled through and the imperial superpowers bankrolling them. On the second of his two best-known songs, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” Cockburn muses on what he’d do if given the ability to fight back against the powers that be (“some son of a bitch would die,” basically). It’s one of the angriest and most merciless protest songs ever recorded, in a league with Dylan’s “Masters of War.” Outstanding.
World of Wonders kicks off with “They Call It Democracy,” a song crammed full of unwieldy lyrics and observations. It shouldn’t work at all, but it does, rather grandly, as the music propels Cockburn’s bitter insights into international finance and its support of tyranny. He continues to defy the odds with the portentous spoken-word “Lily of the Midnight Sky,” a song which skirts silly self-parody for a beautiful meditation on the link between longing for God and revolutionary impulses. The jazzy title track is also fine, but then Cockburn’s inspiration fizzles and, save for the driving, almost punky “People See Through You,” the album collapses into an unmemorable blur of uninspired music and heavy-handed lyrics. (Incidentally, World of Wonders gained notoriety at the time due to one of those bizarre record label decisions that never made anything remotely resembling sense. The album was released at the height of Tipper Gore and the PMRC’s campaign to institute a ratings system based on lyrics, and labels were scrambling to come up with some sort of acceptable response. Cockburn had been using a fair bit of profanity in his writing, and for some fool reason his lyrics were printed on the back cover with lines containing controversial language highlighted in yellow. Exactly what this was meant to accomplish besides instantly drawing attention to the naughty words was never explained, and subsequent pressings did away with the highlights.)
Waiting for a Miracle collects the best singles from Cockburn’s career to that point, along with two very good new tracks — the title song and the pro-Native American rights “Stolen Land.”
Big Circumstance repeats most of World of Wonders’ mistakes. It starts promisingly enough with a rain forest protest number, “If a Tree Falls,” which lays overwrought spoken-word lyrics over a tune sprightly enough to make up for the verbiage, and the very great “Shipwrecked at the Stable Door,” which updates the Beatitudes for modern times. But the rest consists of dull music and not very insightful rantings on Chernobyl, the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Central American death squads and just about every other political topic pissing people off in the late ’80s. The Monty Python-ish “Anything Can Happen” strives to end the album on an offbeat note but it’s too little too late — it would’ve helped if Cockburn had simply gone ahead and recorded its obvious inspiration — The Life of Brian’s closing number, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” which he was regularly performing in concert at that time. Other than the first two tracks and the last song, Big Circumstance is entirely skippable. Live is a good document of the Big Circumstance tour, and includes “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
It’s inevitable that musicians who are Christians and slightly alternative (as opposed to alternative Christian musicians) will at some point fall into orbit around T Bone Burnett, which Cockburn did for Nothing but a Burning Light. Burnett’s production strips off the jazz and art-rock ornamentation and leaves lean roots rock, with help from Jackson Browne and Sam Phillips. With lyrics that turn away from specific political topics (except for the bitter “Kit Carson”) to deal with either personal or universal concerns, Nothing but a Burning Light contains some of Cockburn’s best loved songs (“A Dream Like Mine,” “Great Big Love”) but falls a notch or two below great. It also seems to have marked the end of Cockburn’s closest approach to mass acceptance and popularity — subsequent albums have been noticed only by his devoted fan base.
Cockburn’s longstanding tradition of live holiday shows on Canadian radio served as the inspiration for Christmas. With Burnett, Cockburn performs a mix of beloved seasonals, obscure gems and unmemorable originals.
Burnett mans the board one last time for Dart to the Heart. The performances are good and energetic, but the album never seems to congeal into anything particularly special. While the rollicking “Tie Me at the Crossroads” is pretty good, the best song on the album is the mournful “Closer to the Light,” a tribute to the late Mark Heard, an obscure Christian songwriter known to the Burnett-centric underground Christian axis. (Cockburn is on record as preferring Heard to Dylan. Around the same time, Cockburn performed the excellent title track on Strong Hand of Love, a tribute to Heard featuring, among others, Victoria Williams and Mark Olson.) It’s hard to finger exactly what’s wrong with Dart to the Heart — individually, the songs seem decent enough — but the album as a whole manages to fail.
The Charity of Night, Cockburn’s first album for Rykodisc, puts Cockburn back on the right track. Returning to the jazzier textures of his pre-Humans albums, Cockburn sounds rejuvenated and engaged with his material. “Night Train” kicks things off to a rousing start; the title track and “Strange Waters” are similarly excellent. Guests include Ani DiFranco, Jonatha Brooke, Bonnie Raitt and Rob Wasserman; the artwork is by comic book icon Bill Sienkiewicz.
Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu is notable for its three guest vocalists. Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies appears on two songs, including a cover of “Blueberry Hill.” Lucinda Williams appears on four tracks, and turns in some of her best performances of recent years, especially on “Isn’t That What Friends Are For.” Nashville singer Jonell Mosser sings on two tracks, including “Last Night of the World.” Musically, Breakfast in New Orleans continues from The Charity of Night’s return to jazzy folk-rock, and Cockburn sounds confident and relaxed.
With You’ve Never Seen Everything, Cockburn returns to the angry political rock of his ’80s work, but manages to produce an album as focused as Stealing Fire rather than the meanderings of World of Wonders and Big Circumstance. World music accents abound, drawn from African and South American music. Jackson Browne and Sam Phillips have supporting roles, as do Emmylou Harris and Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer. You’ve Never Seen Everything is Cockburn’s third strong album in a row and a welcome show of strength from an artist well into his fourth decade of recording.
Cockburn is one of the few singer-songwriters for whom an instrumental album is a natural and welcome development. His skill as a guitarist is such that even if he couldn’t write a tune, he’d be in demand as an instrumentalist. On Speechless, Cockburn’s intricate plucking weaves a hypnotic spell, and makes the album a worthwhile new wrinkle in his career.
That achievement, however, doesn’t justify unimaginative instrumentals serving as obvious filler, but several of those show up on Life Short Call Now. Things get off to a promising start with the title cut, on which Cockburn works with an orchestra for the first time in his career. The first half of the album is good to great, but after the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” knock-off “Slow Down Fast,” quality nosedives. The second half is crowded with instrumentals which don’t feel essential to the flow of the album so much as a way for Cockburn to complete an album after running out of things to say. A disappointment.