Cockburn’s 25th may be breakthrough

Published November 1, 1999

IN BASEBALL, they talk about five-tool players ? players who can run with speed, field their position flawlessly, throw the ball with strength and accuracy, hit for a high batting average and hit with power. They are rare. Within music, one could coin the term four-tool player. Such a person would be as rare as their baseball counterpart. They would play a lead instrument with uncommon skill and virtuosity, write engaging and musically involved melodies, pen lyrics with a poet’s grace, and sing those lyrics with distinctive charm. Such a person is Bruce Cockburn. The Canadian legend’s achievements have been chronicled for years, and much ink has been spilled on his behalf in this very column through the years.However, Cockburn’s 30-year career has yielded much less commercial success than has been his due. Indeed, he has often called hits “occasional accidents.” He has had only one bona- fide hit in the United States ? Wondering Where The Lions Are, nearly 20 years ago ? and as much as one hates to admit it, the U.S. market drives the rock music industry. Cockburn’s time, however, may be coming at age 54. His 25th album, Breakfast In New Orleans – Dinner In Timbuctu, is selling well, buoyed by the quick rise up the charts of the first single, Last Night Of The World. It achieved No. 1 most added status stateside in the adult album alternative category. That is industry parlance for a major hit. Canadian success is occurring in all formats.[pullquote]Again co-produced by Canada’s Colin Linden, Cockburn’s latest is a less sombre work than some of his discography, and the feel is sometimes languid rather than intense.That can be a good thing, as the casual listener may find this a less exhausting and demanding listen than is the case with some of his past work. The instrumentals are intricate but tuneful, acoustic arrangements predominate, and there is even a cover of Blueberry Hill! Still, Cockburn challenges. There is the clear political commentary with Canadian references in the folk/funk hybrid, Let the Bad Air Out, for instance. Even the would-be love song, Last Night of the World, has as the reference point his experience of finding “hope among the hopeless” in Central America and his admission, “That was the straw that broke me open.” There are even other potential hits in the quasi love-song motif, but Cockburn clothes them as deeper, more probing looks at relationships. Examples include Look How Far and That’s What Friends are for. The spiritual quest of Cockburn’s pilgrimage is less overt this time around too, though it can certainly be gleaned from the tone of the thrust for social justice in some tracks. There is, however, one exception. It is the album-opening track, When You Give It Away. Following the typical-for-Bruce spoken word stanza and sung chorus format, it sees some character-broadening wit in his travelogue stanzas of an early morning in New Orleans. It all culminates in the chorus, where he extols: [ Cockburn ]"I’ve got this thing in my heart I must give you today / It only lives when you give it away." In interviews, Cockburn has identified “this thing” as “a simple idea, the idea that spirit and love doesn’t reside in you, it’s a current. And we as people work best when the tap is turned on. Feeling that inside, especially now, as life and everything gets faster and faster, and many people feel there is too much to carry, is the type of thing I want to share.” With the early commercial success of Breakfast In New Orleans ? Dinner In Timbuctu, it looks like even more people will get to share the spirit and love that are central in the message of Bruce Cockburn. Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.


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