Thursday, 28 July 2011

Bruce Cockburn's Small Source of Comfort

I'm loving Bruce Cockburn's new CD, Small Source of Comfort.  I don't think I've ever heard a Cockburn album that I didn't like. 

For those unfortunate enough not to have heard of Cockburn, he is a Canadian singer-songwriter who first became famous in the 1970s with a brand of folk-tinged music and beautiful poetic lyrics dealing with spiritual and political themes.  Over the years he has branched out musically, taking on elements of electric rock-n-roll, jazz, soul and world music.  He is a passionate world citizen, travelling not in a superstar musician cocoon but with his eyes and heart open, and lots of his songs are inspired by visits to the world's trouble spots.

It's five years since his last effort, Life Short, Call Now.  He comments in the sleeve notes to Small Source of Comfort, presumably with tongue firmly in cheek, that after that largely acoustic effort he had planned to do something "electric and noisy, with gongs and jackhammers and fiercely distorted guitars."  The best laid plans.  This is possibly his most laid-back album since the 1970s, with spare arrangements, quiet reflective tunes and lots of space for his guitar.

That's fine by me, although a little depressing.  Cockburn is a good guitarist in a way that makes bad guitarists like me wonder why we bother. His unusual chord structures, intricate guitar parts and mastery of rhythm make for instant recognition, as does his weary, ironic voice.  And what can I say about the lyrics?  Just beautiful. This time he is less combative than ususal, more reflective, like this.

I feel these serpents of desire
ripple my skin like ropes of fire
all I ever wanted all along
was to be the "you" in somebody's song.

Or this one

Silver rain sings dancing rhyme
sunlight on blue water
rocky shores grown soft with moss
catches all our laughter
and it sends us back without its edge
to strengthen us anew
that we may walk within these walls
and share our gifts with you.

After 30 albums you would think there wouldn't be any surprising new directions, and there aren't really.  Nonetheless one song made my ears prick up in a new way for its sheer absurd daring.  It's called Call Me Rose, and it's inspired by George Bush's attempts to rehabilitate Richard Nixon's memory.  Cockburn undoubtedly has higher moral standards than Bush, and wonders what it would take to truly rehabilitate Nixon.  Perhaps a second life as a poor woman, learning what it's really like to struggle?

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
compared to last time I look like I've hit the skids
living in the project with my two little kids
it's not what I would of chose
now you have to call me Rose

I was boss of bosses the last time around
I lived by cunning and ambition unbound
the suckers said they'd stand behind me right or wrong
as if they thought that hubris was the mark of the stong
I was an arrogant man
but now I've got it in hand
it's not what I would have chose
now you have to call me Rose

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
I'm back here learning what it is to be poor
to have no power but the strength to endure
I'll perform my penance well
maybe the memoir will sell

it's not what I would of chose
now you have to call me Rose

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