Bruce Cockburn: Bone on Bone
True North Records – 15 September 2017
At the age of 72, Bruce Cockburn, along with fellow Canadian Neil Young, is due to be inducted into The Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame, the ceremony to be held on September 23rd. It’s fitting then that he’s releasing Bone On Bone just a week before his induction as it’s a mature set of songs that reflect many of his long-held beliefs; his spiritualism, his eco-awareness and his longstanding commitment to human rights. According to Cockburn, it’s an album that he wasn’t sure would ever come about following some significant events in his life following his last album, Small Source Of Comfort, back in 2011. He became a father again (at the age of 66), and he spent three years writing his memoir, Rumours Of Glory, an experience which, he says, left him drained. “There was simply nothing left to write songs with. As soon as the book was put to bed, I started asking myself whether I was ever going to be a songwriter again.”
With over 30 albums to his name, Cockburn could have just hung up his belt and settled down to fatherhood. However, an invitation to contribute to a film being made about Canadian poet Al Purdy stirred his creative juices and led to him writing the centrepiece to Bone To Bone. Purdy, described by The Guardian as, “Brash, hard-drinking and belligerent… wrote of farmers and lumberjacks, drinkers and brawlers,” and he inspired a vision in Cockburn of a homeless man, seemingly ranting in the street but actually reciting poems of Purdy’s in return for money. Thus spurred, Cockburn wrote 3 Al Purdy’s which occupies six minutes of the album and which is one of the finest songs one is likely to hear all year. Thereafter, according to Cockburn, “The ice was broken.”
3 Al Purdys finds Cockburn delving into the mindset of a hobo who is versed in Purdy’s poetry, an accidental exposure to the poems in some institution speaking to him. Over a scrabbled bluesy rhythm, somewhat akin to Ry Cooder‘s later work, Cockburn tells the hobo’s story while his spoken interludes are excerpts from Purdy’s poetry given some gravitas from Cockburn’s gravelly voice. The rattling percussion, percussive guitar picking and lugubrious clarinet combine to offer a claustrophobic streetwise shuffle and the poetry excerpts should compel the listener to seek out Purdy’s work. A friend of Bukowski and determinedly non-academic (apparently Margaret Atwood once poured a drink over him when he accused her of being too academic), his words chosen here by Cockburn are excellent.
The bustling instrumental restlessness of 3 Al Purdys informs much of the album with Cockburn’s acute guitar picking expertly accompanied throughout as he ripples through songs with blues like undertones, richly embroidered folk meanderings and sombre warnings. The opening song, States I’m In, is a darkly inflected rumination stuffed full of grim portents given lift by an ominous driving beat and a stellar guitar solo from producer, Colin Linden. The title here almost a pun as Cockburn, a Canadian living in California, has expressed his anxiety over the current Presidential incumbent.
Speaking of puns, Cockburn appears to pull a neat trick on the next song, Stab At Matter, which is, on the face of it, a Cajun-influenced jaunt of a song with spritely accordion but on examination it appears to be his rock’n’roll interpretation of the 13th-century hymn Stabat Mater. If so it ranks as a magnificent adoption of devotional music into the realms of popular music, if not, at least, you can dance to it. Stab At Matter features a chorus from members of Cockburn’s church of his choice, The San Francisco Lighthouse, and they appear again on Forty Years In The Wilderness, Looking And Waiting, Jesus Train and Twelve Gates To The City. The former is a high plains ballad with a biblical bent alluding to the forty days and nights of Jesus fasting in the desert but given a wonderfully dry and dusty borderline touch much like Dave Alvin might have proffered. Looking And Waiting meanwhile is a skeletal assemblage of guitars and mbira (a primitive African keyboard) with a mournful slide guitar thrown in, the chorus an uplifting counterpoint to Cockburn’s raspy plea for a sign from some form of deity. He eventually goes all gospel-like on the driving Jesus Train which suffers from its similarity to numerous songs which have gone before it lacking punch and, I suppose, spiritual uplift. It sounds somewhat forced and made to fit, and while it skirls along with some energy, it’s not the strongest offering on the album. The closing song, Twelve Gates To the City, is much more successful as it approaches the likes of The Staple Singers and their amalgamation of devotion and uplifting, sensual soul music as Cockburn and his San Francisco Lighthouse Singers coalesce over 12 string guitar cascades and Jericho walls tumbling coronet parps.
Cockburn addresses more temporal issues on several of the songs. Cafe Society is a blustery urban blues comment on the elevated blindness of those who frequent chic locations while bewailing their news feeds. Their concern over tsunamis, crazies with guns and black people shot by white cops superseded by their more immediate concerns over the stock market and what’s on at the opera. False River is something of a tour de force as Cockburn turns in a visceral diatribe against consumerism as, aided yet again, by the San Francisco Lighthouse Singers, he lays into the wasteful processes of the modern world. The carcasses of tankers, oil slicks and dead sea creatures wash up along with images of Bart Simpson shaped jewellery and riot cops spouting teargas as Cockburn concludes that we are carrying out the work of the four horsemen of the apocalypse for them. Strong stuff indeed and the song itself is delivered with some aplomb as the verses lead into a magnificent acoustic guitar solo sounding somewhat Spanish and reminiscent somehow of Jerry Garcia’s work with The Grateful Dead on American Beauty.
Bone On Bone is a powerful declaration from a mature observer of human nature. It’s gutsy and incisive with Cockburn delving into his musical roots and his personal concerns and ladled with beaucoups of blues and folk. On the strength of this, he well deserves his induction.
photo by Daniel Keebler