Bruce Cockburn: Small Source of Comfort (True North)

Cockburn Small Source

Still witty, Cockburn lightens up – and gives us a few welcome instrumentals

4 Stars

14 Tracks / 54 minutes

For those who can’t wait to find out what is in store, Cockburn gives a foretaste of the whole disc in the first three tracks. Showing his immense lyrical prowess,“The Iris of the World” is social observation, laced with wit; “Call Me Rose” is an ingenious, tongue-in-cheek way of looking at an issue; while “Bohemian Three-Step” is one of several instrumentals.

Cockburn’s brain has always been quick to run off social commentary and his fingers equally nimble at moving around the fretboard – nothing new there – but the sheer force of fun on this release seems unprecedented. The man is positively chilled and mellow in his approach, as if he wants to speak wisdom, but feels it will get through more effectively if lubricated by a few litres of humour.

And what a good time! “Call Me Back” is a throwaway, grin-inducing ditty about a mate who never returns his calls. Accompanying himself on a “human grunting jug,” Cockburn lists the possible – if highly unlikely – reasons, with a playfulness that I haven’t heard from him since “Anything Can Happen” on Big Circumstance. “Iris” features light, self-deprecating bits (“I’m goods at catching rainbows, not so good at catching trout / I’m good at blowing holes in things and ranting in self-doubt”). But nothing beats the song whose opening couplet shoots straight into my top ten; how many have there been as offbeat and intriguing as: “My name was Richard Nixon, only now I’m a girl / You wouldn’t know it, but I used to be the king of the world”

The Canadian uses his wit to make a point. In the song, Nixon is re-incarnated as a reflective single mother of two living in a project, his hubris lost in the perspective and pragmatism that comes with poverty. Cockburn’s twelve-string sounds good here, too.

His commentary on the world gets sprinkled around the disc, and often comes from travel. Having a brother who is a doctor in the Canadian forces, Cockburn gets to do morale-building trips and a few songs come from his time in Afghanistan. “Each One Lost” can veer into triteness in places, but still manages to mix empathy for the soldiers with anger at the makers of war as it laments the loss of young lives. His wordplay is tight on “Iris” and fits the melody like a key in a lock. In it, he admits “I’ve mostly dodged the dogmas of what life is all about,” so it’s no surprise that the minor-key “Radiance” is a bit theologically muddled (and surprisingly mournful for a song about feminine beauty).

Of the five welcome instrumentals, the sprightly, guitar-driven “Bohemian Three-Step” leads the pack, Cockburn’s agile finger-work helped on by Gary Craig’s light, sensitive drums. The fiddle-fuelled “Comets of Kandahar,” inspired by a rear view of military jet engines, is up there with it. Not far behind, “Lois on the Autobahn,” a wordless piece about his mother dying, is surprisingly lively (and is another example of the collection’s travel sub-text). The other two almost run into each other and help the disc to fade away gracefully at the end.

I could also mention album closer “Gifts,” which hails from 1968, but has never before been recorded; his writing duets with Annabelle Chvostek; the “My Sharona”-like acoustic riff of “Five Fifty-One,” or the way that Jenny Scheinman’s violin tones much of the disc.

But for me, the bottom line is the craft and consistency that he manages here. In the past, his great songs have often been balanced by the ones that sound like he is half-speaking his lyrics. Here, melody is as consistent as his deftness with words, and most of the songs are impeccably dressed in just the right clothes. It may be his 31st album, but he is alert and alive enough to still produce one of his best studio sets since the magnificent Stealing Fire.

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