Like the rest of the world, Bruce Cockburn is pensive these days. Confronted with the sight of tanks rolling through the streets of Baghdad, the politically active, spiritually minded veteran of 27 albums offers a typically challenging analysis: “I don’t know if I believe in the literal existence of Satan,” he offers. “But if he’s real, he’s got to be laughing his head off.” It’s the kind of assessment that isn’t new for Cockburn, one sure to elicit nods of agreement or howls of outrage, depending on his audience’s spiritual and political views.
But Cockburn has never been one to cater to anyone’s expectations. Pegged as a Christian mystic in the ‘70s, Cockburn has confounded all sides of his audience, first with a series of decidedly leftist political albums in the ‘80s, albums antithetical to the conservative Reagan zeitgeist of many of his evangelical followers. The paeans to the Sandinistas and diatribes against the International Monetary Fund won him new followers on the far left, but they too were confounded when Cockburn continued to pursue his spiritual muse, including the release of a 1992 Christmas album that contained fifteen songs about—of all things—Christ. In short, Bruce Cockburn is simply who he is: the creator of some of the most thoughtful, challenging and beautiful songs of the past several decades, a masterful guitarist equally at home with folk, jazz, rock and world music, and a compassionate, caring, restless, ever-searching, world-weary, helpless, socially active, peace-loving, raging bundle of contradictions. Leave your stereotypes at home. You won’t need them on this journey.
Bruce Cockburn has a new album, You’ve Never Seen Everything. The title reflects a theme that echoes through all his albums recorded over a 33-year career. “I’m afraid of repeating myself,” admits Cockburn. “It’s a phobia I have. I never assume I’m going to be able to write another album after I finish one. It’s a gift when I’m able to, and I never take it for granted. If there’s a trick to it at all, it involves approaching life with a sense of openness. If you don’t keep learning and growing, you’re going to stagnate.”
He needn’t worry. You’ve Never Seen Everything sounds fresh and timeless, musically adventurous, full of the lyrical insights that distinguish Bruce Cockburn’s best songs. It’s easily one of the highlights of his career. The familiar Cockburn touches are there—Hugh Marsh’s soaring violin work and Colin Linden’s guitar fills, Sam Phillips’ background vocals and Cockburn’s own stinging guitar leads. But he borrows two of the best in the business, bassist Larry Taylor and percussionist Stephen Hodges from Tom Waits’ band, and they contribute supple, sympathetic accompaniment to the most jazz-influenced album of Cockburn’s career.
Even more notable are the contributions of pianist Andy Milne and harmonica player Gregoire Maret. Cockburn met Milne, the leader of avant-garde jazz ensemble Dapp Theory, after one of Cockburn’s New York gigs, and their ensuing collaboration is proof of what can happen when the creative minds of two different generations meet and spark. The interplay is frequently spectacular, as when Cockburn and Milne trade solos on the blistering “Trickle Down,” a polemical rant against voodoo economics featuring some breakneck Milne piano runs. It’s as if Cockburn had recruited a young Bud Powell or Herbie Hancock to the band, and he himself seems as invigorated and astonished at the results as anyone. “He’s really something, isn’t he?” he enthuses. And indeed he is. Maret, also an integral part of Dapp Theory, is just as impressive, and his jazz-inflected harmonica floats in and out of several songs like the ghost of Toots Thielemans. Together they help to shape an album that sounds like nothing that has preceded it in the Cockburn catalogue. Approaching 58, Cockburn has ventured down another delightful and unexpected road. There’s no stagnation in sight.
Bruce Cockburn knows unexpected roads. “You see the extremes of what humans can be,” he wrote in an early ‘80s song called “Rumours of Glory.” He was just summarizing his life story. He may not have seen everything, but he’s seen enough extremes in those 58 years to qualify for “close enough” status. Traveling from Mali to Cambodia, from Guatemala to Kosovo to Mozambique, Bruce Cockburn has chronicled what he’s seen, and how he’s reacted. His most famous reaction, an anguished cry of helplessness and rage at the sight of helicopters crossing the Mexico-Guatemala border to strafe desperate Guatemalan refugees, remains indelible in the memory. You hear the song once and you don’t forget it:
I want to raise every voice
At least I've got to try
Every time I think about it
Water rises to my eyes
echoes of the victims cry
If I had a rocket launcher
some sonofabitch would die
That one earned Bruce Cockburn a certified hit in 1984, airplay on MTV, and the kind of notoriety that he would probably like to forget: as a form of psychological warfare, the U.S. military played that song in 1989, quite loudly, outside the Vatican Embassy in Panama City during its attempt to oust Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Having seen his song twisted into a perverse patriotic anthem, he expresses a certain ambivalence about it these days. He hasn't performed “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” for several years now, and won't sing it even if it's requested, as it inevitably is at his concerts. He's fearful of the current emotional climate, especially in the United States; he's worried that people will hear it the wrong way, that they won’t understand, and he doesn't want to run the risk of feeding a body of emotion that he'd rather not arouse.
“We’re confronted with great darkness as a species right now, as spiritual creatures on this planet,” says Cockburn. “I don’t think it’s hopeless, and I don’t want You’ve Never Seen Everything to make people feel hopeless. But I think we’ve got to call a spade a spade.”
No problem there. Cockburn has never shied away from big pronouncements, and he doesn’t on his latest album either. Beginning his new song “All Our Dark Tomorrows” with the line “The village idiot takes the throne” probably won’t win him an invitation to the White House, but then, he’s probably not fishing for one in the first place. The usual targets—greed, hypocrisy, multinational corporations, the systematic destruction of the environment—come in for their biennial skewering. It would all sound very familiar if Bruce Cockburn wasn’t so creative at finding new ways to spout invective.
Then again, there’s this:
The grinding devolution
of the democratic dream
Brings us men in gas masks dancing
while the shells burst
The trouble with normal is
it always gets worse
Bruce Cockburn wrote that 20 years ago. I watch CNN too, hoping not to hear words like “anthrax” and “smallpox.” Maybe he was on to something.
Normal certainly doesn’t seem to be getting any better. The title track on You’ve Never Seen Everything is like an updated version of “Rocket Launcher” with its litany of horrific inhumanity and exploitation, and it will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. It’s a spectacular dirge for humankind and the awful things we do to one another. Among the recounted horrors are a massacre at a child’s birthday party, a self-immolation, a mass poisoning caused by a baker who cut his flour with pesticide and murder by pitchfork. Don’t bring the kids to this show, although children are the unwitting victims of many of these atrocities—atrocities taken, Cockburn claims, right from the pages of the newspaper.
Emmylou Harris joins Bruce on the chorus, and her plaintive harmonies only highlight the mournfulness. It’s a remarkable anthem for a world whose real hard currency is tears and blood, where people butcher one another casually, where the light goes unseen and unrecognized. “You thought Guatemala was bad,” Cockburn seems to be telling us. “Normal still prevails, and you’ve never seen everything.”
And then there’s love.
A spiritually searching folkie, Cockburn found Jesus in the early ’70s and recorded a handful of albums full of yearning and praise and faith and doubt, all without a whiff of dogma or cliché.
Albums like Joy Will Find a Way and In the Falling Dark won him a sizable following among self-described Christians searching for a hero to break out of the “loss/cross, grace/face” songwriting mold of the then-fledgling Christian music industry. Cockburn fit the bill, with his poetry, his mysticism and his unabashed love for Jesus. He could play a mean guitar, too, as early instrumentals such as “Water Into Wine” showed. But instead of trying to fit within any stereotypes or expectations, Cockburn simply lived his life and wrote and sang about it.
“I’m not a very good role model, I’m afraid,” he said. “And I really have no desire to be a Christian poster child. There are a lot of people on the Christian scene who are not satisfied with the limitations of the art that’s offered. It’s been a long time since the Church supported artists like Heironymous Bosch. You get this blandness, and people get fed up with the blandness, and I was, I guess, a little breath of fresh air for some of those people. But then when I became less overtly Christian in my songs and started dealing with the world more, some of them got upset and dropped by the wayside. I remember getting an angry letter from somebody because I put the word ‘shit’ in a song. How could I be a Christian and use that language? Well, sorry, but you have some thinking to do, honey.”
The tone changed in 1980 with the release of Humans, a beautiful, gritty, sad chronicle of the end of Cockburn’s marriage. If Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” could be set to music, then Cockburn may have done it with Humans. It is the sound of loneliness and isolation, desperation and, finally, newfound hope and healing. “Bloody nose and burning eyes / Raised in laughter to the skies” is the way Cockburn expressed it, and for many of his fans it remains his best album. That is, if “best” is not too callous a word to describe traumatic events that seem so acutely painful that listening to them almost feels like a violation of privacy.
The love is still there. It’s always been there, in fact. Cockburn still sings about God, as well as about human love. Sometimes he merges them together and doesn’t even try to sort them out, just lets the inscrutable truth hang there pure and unadorned, as he did in a 1992 song called “One of the Best Ones”:
There are eight million mysteries
In the naked body
Can't even sight on some distant horizon
Like the nine billion names of God
Don't bring you any closer
To anyone you can simply set eyes on
But in the same way it's as real
Don't always recognize what I feel
But of the dancing scenes that life reveals
This is one of the best ones
I carried that song around with me a few months ago, thinking about my approaching 20th wedding anniversary. It was my own private soundtrack to a marriage. Nine billion names for God, 7,300 days, a thousand obstinate, pigheaded moments, one woman, and some kind of alchemy that turned the dross to gold. You can’t put that in a creedal statement, but Bruce Cockburn got it exactly right.
It’s fitting that a consummate songwriter like Bruce Cockburn should have the last word, and the last word on You’ve Never Seen Everything is “hope.” “It’s bigger than you can imagine,” he sings on “Messenger Wind,” the album’s final song. “Now it’s forever.” It is a devout wish, a wistful memory, a defense against the darkness, a kind of prayer.
Messenger wind swooping out of the sky
Lights each sunny speck
in the human kaleidoscope
Hope is the golden thread that runs through all of Cockburn’s songs, through all of those 27 albums, even in the litanies of destruction and devastation. It’s one of the many reasons why I love the man’s music. He finds time and again that precarious balance between the blood, lust, greed and inhumanity on one hand and the buoyant, irrepressible hope for change on the other.
A long time ago Bruce Cockburn sang, “I carry these scars so precious and rare / And tonight I feel like I’m made of air.” That was a time when he found the balance in a mere two lines. Other times it floats there in the wind, at the tail end of a world-weary, despairing recitation of horror, in the last line of the title track of his latest album. Then “you’ve never seen everything” becomes more than just a reminder of the depths to which humans will sink, but a defiant promise that even here, broadcasting live from the gates of hell, the demons can be put to flight. Hold on, there’s always more.
Bruce Cockburn has been delivering on that promise for 33 years. It’s a promise well made and well kept on his latest album, one in an ongoing series of searing, uplifting dispatches from the front.