Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn ​Bone on Bone
Few recording artists are as creative and prolific as Bruce Cockburn. Since
his self-titled debut in 1970, the Canadian singer-songwriter has issued a
steady stream of acclaimed albums every couple of years. But that output
suddenly ran dry in 2011 following the release of Small Source of Comfort.
There were good reasons for the drought. For one thing, Cockburn became
a father again with the birth of his daughter Iona. Then there was the
publication of his 2014 memoir Rumours of Glory.
“I didn’t write any songs until after the book was published because all my
creative energy had gone into three years of writing it,” Cockburn explains,
from his home in San Francisco. “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.”
Such doubt was new to the man who’s rarely been at a loss for words as
he’s distilled political views, spiritual revelations and personal experiences
into some of popular music’s most compelling songs. What spurred
Cockburn back into songwriting was an invitation to contribute a song to a
documentary film about the late, seminal Canadian poet Al Purdy and he
was off to the races.
Bone On Bone, Cockburn’s 33rd album, arrives with 11 new songs,
including “3 Al Purdys,” a brilliant, six-minute epic that pays tribute to
Purdy’s poetry. Cockburn explains its genesis: “I went out and got Purdy’s
collected works, which is an incredible book. Then I had this vision of a
homeless guy who is obsessed with Purdy’s poetry, and he’s ranting it on
the street. The song is written in the voice of that character. The chorus
goes, ‘I'll give you three Al Purdys for a twenty dollar bill.’ Here’s this
grey-haired dude, coat tails flapping in the wind, being mistaken for the sort
of addled ranters you run into on the street—except he’s not really ranting,
he’s reciting Al Purdy. The spoken word parts of the track are excerpts from
Purdy’s poems. After that, once the ice was broken, the songs just started
coming.”
Cockburn’s rugged fingerpicking style on the Dobro perfectly matches
Purdy’s plainspoken words and the grizzled voice of his street character. A
similar guitar style can be heard on two of the next songs Cockburn wrote,
the gospel-like “Jesus Train,” and “Café Society,” a bluesy number about
people who gather at his local coffee shop to sip their java and talk about
the state of the world.
There’s a prevalent urgency and anxious tone to much of the album, which
Cockburn attributes to living in America during the Trump era. But, more
than anything, Bone on Bone amounts to the deepest expression of
Cockburn’s spiritual concerns to date. The 12-time Juno winner and
Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee turned away from traditional
Christianity in the mid-1970s toward a quest for the more all-inclusive
mysticism he documents in his memoir. And it’s that kind of spirituality that
figures prominently in “Jesus Train” and “Twelve Gates to the City.” In
“Looking and Waiting,” Cockburn sings of “scanning the skies for a beacon”
from the divine.
“It’s a song of faith and frustration,” says Cockburn of the latter. "...Tired of
looking in from the outside. My MO has always been to be aware of the
divine...that dimension...always dealing with being stuck in a kind of
observer’s position with respect to all that. I know it’s there. I don't really
see as faith so much as knowledge. Others may have different ideas about
those things, but for me, I don’t have to struggle to believe in God, or the
notion that God cares what happens to me. But I do have to struggle with
being in a conscious, intentional relationship. That underlies a lot of these
songs.”
“Forty Years in the Wilderness” ranks alongside “Pacing the Cage” or “All
the Diamonds” as one of Cockburn’s most starkly beautiful folk songs.
“There have been so many times in my life when an invitation has come
from somewhere...the cosmos...the divine...to step out of the familiar into
something new. I’ve found it’s best to listen for, and follow these
promptings. The song is really about that. You can stay with what you know
or you can pack your bag and go where you’re called, even if it seems
weird...even if you can’t see why or where you’ll end up.”
“Forty Years in the Wilderness” is one of several songs that feature a
number of singers from the church Cockburn frequents, for the sake of
convenience referred to in the album credits as the San Francisco
Lighthouse “Chorus.” “The music was one of the enticements that drew me
to SF Lighthouse. As I found myself becoming one of the regulars there,
and got to know the people, I felt that I really wanted all these great
singers, who were now becoming friends, to be on the album. They were
kind enough to say yes!” Among other songs, they contribute
call-and-response vocals to the stirring “Stab at Matter.” Other guests on
the album include singer-songwriters Ruby Amanfu, Mary Gauthier, and
Brandon Robert Young, along with bassist Roberto Occhipinti, and Julie
Wolf, who plays accordion on “3 Al Purdys” and sings with the folks from
Lighthouse, together with LA songwriter Tamara Silvera.
Produced by Colin Linden, Cockburn’s longtime collaborator, the album is
built around the musicianship of Cockburn on guitar and the core
accompaniment of bassist John Dymond and drummer Gary Craig. Also
very much part of the sound is the accordion playing of Cockburn’s nephew
John Aaron Cockburn and the solos of noted fluegelhorn player Ron Miles
(check out his stunning work on the cascading “Mon Chemin,” for
example).
Two other songs should be noted. The environmental warning “False River”
came about at the invitation of Yvonne Bloomer, the poet laureate of
Victoria, British Columbia. Bloomer was seeking a poem about the
controversial Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline. “Pipelines have their
own perils that we’re all aware of,” says Cockburn, “so I started writing what
was meant to be a spoken-word piece with a rhythm to it. But it evolved
very quickly into a song.”
“States I’m In,” which opens the album, conjures up feelings of mystery and
dread. “It’s literally a ‘dark night of the soul’ kind of song,” Cockburn
explains, “as it starts with sunset and ends with dawn. It passes through the
night. The song is about illusion and self-delusion, looking at the tricks you
play on yourself.” He adds: “Maybe it’s also a play on words about me living
in the States.”
Cockburn, who won the inaugural People’s Voice Award at the Folk
Alliance International conference in February and will be inducted into the
Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in September, continues to find
inspiration in the world around him and channel those ideas into songs. “My
job is to try and trap the spirits of things in the scratches of pen on paper
and the pulling of notes out of metal,” he once noted. More than forty years
after embarking on his singer-songwriting career, Cockburn keeps kicking
at the darkness so that it might bleed daylight.

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