Small Source of Comfort
Full disclosure: Bruce Cockburn (COE-burn) is Canadian; I’m Canadian. There aren’t that many of us. We’re the world’s second largest country, with a population smaller than California. So we back our homeys when they’re world-class: Angela Hewitt, Frederick Banting, Sandra Oh, Denys Arcand, Jim Carrey, Diana Krall, Leonard Cohen, Karen Kain, Tom Thomson, David Suzuki, Cirque du Soleil.
Which returns us to Bruce. The world-class part, that is. He’s a musician’s musician with an extraordinary scope as a lyricist, guitar player, and singer. He can do jazzy gutbucket ("Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long"), a beautiful country hymn ("One Day I Walk"), a great road song ("Silver Wheels"), an anti-war descant equal to Dylan ("If I Had A Rocket Launcher"), a funny blues ("The Blues Got The World By The Balls"), a credible cover of a classic blues ("Soul of a Man"), a rocker ("Lovers In A Dangerous Time") and several other genres. He is one of the planet’s best finger-pickers, which is why he has swapped licks with guitaristas such as Ali Farka Touré. The years have been good to his voice. His lower register has deepened but he hasn’t lost much at the top.
Small Source of Comfort is the singer’s thirty-first album (!) since he began in Ottawa forty-some years ago. A generous album of twelve songs and a coda it is, too. “Called Me Back” is a wry, LOL tune that imagines why someone wouldn’t return your call, for example, “Maybe his mother ran afoul of the law” or “He coulda slid into a society scene.” The instrumental “Bohemian 3-Step” is way uptempo and alternates between complex descending chords and the quick, complicated finger-picking at which he is so adept. He shows off his musicianship in four other instrumentals on this CD that run from jazz-rock fusion, “The Comets of Kandahar,” (with superb violin help from Jenny Scheinman); to the Debussyesque “Parnassus and Fog”; to the spare, what-you-might-call-new-age “Ancestors.”
His lyrics are as original as his guitar work. “Each One Lost” is part threnody with undertones of a Scottish ballad. Bruce spent a week in Afghanistan and was present when a plane brought in the bodies of two Canadian soldiers. The song is also a celebration of the freedom for which the men fought and died; its theme, as the title indicates, is reminiscent of John Donne’s famous passage from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, which contains the phrase “for whom the bell tolls.” It’s destined to be classic Cockburn.
“Call Me Rose” is an instant classic as well. The song begins, “My name was Richard Nixon only now I am a girl/You wouldn't know it but I used to be the king of the world.” Yes, the singer imagines Richard Nixon reincarnated as a young woman—with two kids living in the projects, working out his penance, learning what it means to be poor and powerless, but also learning how to endure. These two songs are alone worth the price of admission, and you get eleven more to boot, all of them very fine.
So there you have it. One Canadian shilling for a fellow Canuck? Or one Canadian telling the truth about his brother’s tunes? Bruce is a member of the Order of Canada, one of the country’s two highest civilian awards for merit. That’s a clue. So Canuck, Aussie, Kiwi, Yank, or Brit, you should buy this CD if you love the best. I swear by the beaver and the maple leaf you’ll be glad you blew the fifteen bucks.