Sunday, February 27, 2011

On Good Terms with the Muse: Bruce Cockburn’s Small Source of Comfort

Bruce Cockburn’s 30th album is called Small Source of Comfort. It’s an interesting title taken from the song “Five Fifty-One” by a musician and songwriter who’s been making consistent, high quality music since the late 1960s. But Cockburn is a rather nomadic artist keen to challenge himself as much as he challenges his fans. Consequently, this new album, his first in five years, is a mix of familiar sounds while simultaneously looking forward. It features poignant songs about love, loss, and what you could call introspective instrumentals. (As usual for a Cockburn release, it also features printed lyrics in English and French, plus the date and geographic location of each song.)

Not typical of a Cockburn release, though, is humour. It’s to be found on the song “Call Me Rose” which is about Richard Nixon being re-incarnated as a single mother. Written in Montreal in 2009, it’s a track that speaks about Karma in a most original way. Who would have thought that Richard Nixon would ever be re-incarnated, let alone as a single mother with two kids? Well, Cockburn did. According to his notes, it came easily to him. Which begs another question, after 30 years, how does he keep coming up with new songs? Perhaps he’s on good terms with his muse or, to be more practical, he’s constantly thinking, dreaming and writing it down, as is the case with “Call Me Rose” as a fully- formed song.

But much like Cockburn’s 1981 release Inner City Front, the urban landscape always provides the stimulus he needs. Most of the tunes were written in cities such as Montreal, Brooklyn and Toronto. On the other hand, one could call this a kind of road album because Cockburn has been doing a lot of driving between Kingston, Ontario and New York. In fact, he intends to drive from his current home in Los Angeles to Toronto just before his next tour. Driving long distances can be a solitary yet dynamic experience as the landscape unfolds before you. For Cockburn, no stranger to travel, it inspired several songs on this record: “Five Fifty One” about being stuck in traffic in NYC and the opening track “The Iris of the World” when Cockburn sings “The road under the half moon sky/Rolls out in shades of blue.” For me, it’s the strongest track on the album. 
Jenny Scheinman
There's a real musical sense of the traditional on this record that weaves itself through the songs and is particularly strong on the instrumentals. The participation of Jenny Scheinman on violin and Tim Lauer on accordion add the magic to "Parnassus and Fog," for example, an instrumental about San Francisco. I understand Scheinman will be playing with Cockburn on his next tour that starts on March 24, 2011, with Gary Craig on percussion.

Colin Linden, producer of this album, seems to have understood the timeliness of Cockburn’s music over the years. Consequently the production work is clean, simple and unobtrusive.

Bruce Cockburn will be 66 years-of-age in May. Like most of his 30 plus recordings, Small Source of Comfort doesn’t dwell on the past because it reveals an artist who is alert to his own surroundings in spite of his age. 

-- John Corcelli is a musician, writer, actor and theatre director.

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