Speechless, Bruce Cockburn's first foray into completely instrumental territory, is proof in the pudding that you can teach an old dog new tricks. There are 15 tracks here, the vast majority of which are redos of tracks from Cockburn's catalog. But given their treatment – many of them done as solo guitar pieces – the dearth of new material doesn't even matter. In fact, one could venture to say that these feel like altogether new pieces. Cockburn is a master guitarist; he often interweaves jazz, blues, country, and folk styles into his cross-genre songs. Here he shines, pure and simple. "Train in the Rain" (anyone notice how many of his songs are about trains and travel?) touches on Leo Kottke and Peter Lang; "Water into Wine" utilizes flamenco stylings while crossing into Gypsy jazz chords à la Charlie Byrd. A new work, "Elegy," kisses the modalities of "Greensleeves" while creating itself as a piece that evokes both absence and memory. "Rouler Sa Bosse" from Salt, Sun and Time juxtaposes Cockburn's six-string against Jack Zaza's clarinet, and becomes a straight-up gently swinging jazz tune.
Bruce Cockburn's self-titled debut's blend of diversity, enthusiasm, and innocence never quite resurfaced again in his work, especially in his more clinical, politically inclined tracts of later decades. The opening number, "Going to the Country," still evokes that hippie-esque, back-to-the-earth movement as well as any song ever recorded, complete with a sly wink that keeps it fresh to this day. And since this was 1970, the album also comes equipped with some of those quaint excesses of the period; try the nasal tone poem gracing "The Bicycle Trip." "Musical Friends" remains a lively, happy-go-lucky classic with piano signature lifted from Paul McCartney's playbook; it's difficult to picture the dour Cockburn of more recent years ever having this much fun. In contrast, "Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon" offers a trance-like, introspective atmosphere reminiscent of British folkie legend Nick Drake.
Even more than its predecessor, the aptly titled Dart to the Heart eschews the heavier, more political tendencies that had become synonymous with Bruce Cockburn's music for more than a decade, returning to a more personal, introspective side. The opening track, "Listen for the Laugh," a horn-driven rocker that wouldn't have been out of place on many of his recordings during the '80s, and the almost joyful finality of "Tie Me at the Crossroads," bookend what is primarily more subdued material, including the tender second track, "All the Ways I Want You," which more suitably sets the tone for the album. And though it may not possess the intensity or power of his early-'80s output, Dart to the Heart comes with nearly a quarter century of experience behind it, bringing an insight, depth, and maturity to Cockburn's ventures into love and the mystic. Still, there's just enough outrage and frustration to keep things interesting. Musically, T-Bone Burnett's sympathetic production tastefully and engagingly frames the songs, placing Cockburn's vocal and characteristically superb guitar at center stage.