10 March 2011, by Wilfred Langmaid -
Bruce Cockburn's new album, Small Source Of Comfort, is his first studio album in five years, but his 31st album overall.
Officially released Tuesday, it is the latest treat in the unique and stellar career of this 65-year-old Canadian legend. Cockburn is a world-class lyrical poet who has been favourably and aptly compared to Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot with respect to the exquisite detail and timing of his language.
The melodies, meanwhile, are skeletons drawn into the craft of the wordsmith, serving as perfect vehicles for his inventive, tuneful, and virtuosic guitar playing and his hooking quaver of a voice.
He sometimes delivers free-flowing lines whose blizzards of imagery just fit into a measure, and sometimes presents biting, staccato lines leaving spaces filled by economic but always intense accompaniment. There is never a lazy line or misplaced sharp image either written or played.
As has been the case for the past couple of decades, Cockburn plays various acoustic guitars crafted by Toronto-based luthier Linda Manzer. Colin Linden adds a production hand which is deft and distinctive without being either dominant or overwhelming.
The core band this time around features Cockburn on guitars and occasional various percussion tools, violinist Jenny Scheinman, drummer Gary Craig, and bassist John Dymond. Side collaborators include string player/vocalist Annabelle Chvostek and multi-instrumentalist Linden.
On the one hand, the album follows typical Cockburn terrain. On the other hand, nobody does this sort of craft any better.
To wit, the album-opening mid-tempo toggle Iris Of The World is a travelogue of separate moments in time. Unlike the world travel which has marked many Cockburn songs of the last three decades, this one has its roots in commutes between his Kingston home and his girlfriend's place in Brooklyn. Its second cousin of a travelogue is the crooner Driving Away, a rare co-write for Cockburn (with Chvostek).
The odd chord progression of Radiance, a song which conjures up images of the title track to his 1997 masterpiece The Charity Of Night, displays one lyrical side of the Cockburn coin - a searching pilgrim.
He is just as effective as a wry jokester in Called Me Back, and he is just as adept at a melody and style that perfectly fits the tongue-in-cheek feel of that song - a jug band style skin to his covers of Mary Had A Baby and Early On One Christmas Morn from the 1993 disc Christmas. Vintage in a different way is Five Fifty-One - an acoustic blues rocker with great lyrics and 12-string guitar work by Cockburn with a feel which recalls his 1991 album Nothing But A Burning Light.
Cockburn's masterworks of the 1980s are recalled on several of the pieces which employ Scheinman prominently, conjuring up images of Hugh Marsh's central role in his '80s bands.
One striking example is the relative rocker Boundless, which also gets an extra oomph from Chvostek's mandolin working in counterpoint to Cockburn's guitar work.
Cockburn travelled to Afghanistan in 2009. While on his way to Kandahar, he was at a Canadian staging base in the Middle East on the day Major Yannick Pépin and Corporal Jean-François Drouin were killed. He found himself part of the ramp ceremony for the repatriation of their earthly remains. The song Each One Lost ensured, and it is the latest entry of his canon which poignantly addresses the oneness of all humanity.
The 14 tracks include five instrumentals. While many are shared spotlights, and some are clear Scheinman showcases, the virtuosity of Cockburn's playing, as well as the sense of wonder one has when they realize that all of these sounds are being made buy one man on one instrument with no overdubs, is especially evident on Ancestors and Bohemian 3-Step.
The album's lead single is Call Me Rose. On the surface, it is a relatively straight folk rocker. However, its storyline is pure Cockburn - wry, political, and spiritual.
According to the liner notes, he awoke one morning with the notion of a truly rehabilitated Richard Nixon reincarnated as a single mother in a housing project.
There is always a certain gravitas to all of Cockburn's music.
However, it comes full circle on Small Source Of Comfort, in that the album's closer is the brief benediction Gifts. Written in 1968 but never previously recorded or released, it resonates as richly and authentically as the rest of the material written over four decades later.
Fredericton-based freelance writer Wilfred Langmaid has reviewed albums in The Daily Gleaner since 1981, and is a past judge for both the Junos and the East Coast Music Awards. His column appears each Saturday.