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.
So pronounced is Bruce Cockburn's reputation as a celebrated singer-songwriter that it's easy to overlook the fact that Cockburn is also an exceptional guitarist. Speechless should change all that. A collection of previously recorded and brand new instrumental tracks, the album puts the spotlight squarely on Cockburn's brilliant acoustic guitar playing.
Long regarded as Bruce Cockburn's finest moment on record, Humans, issued in 1980, is easily the most revealing of his tomes as well. This Rounder reissue is fully remastered and contains one bonus track, a live reading of the album's opener, "Grim Travellers." Cockburn's marriage had fallen apart, he'd moved from the country to a gritty inner-city section of Toronto called Cabbagetown, and he'd begun to explore in earnest the reggae rhythms that had underscored his hit single "Wondering Where the Lions Are" from Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws. The record of a restless travelogue that has become his stock in trade as a wandering observer, activist, and minstrel with deep wanderlust, Humans is the result of great turmoil and pain, and reveals Cockburn's musical, spiritual, and emotional worldview as all in flux.
With every album he released during the first half of the '70s, Bruce Cockburn continued to evolve and show signs of greatness, and with his seventh, In the Falling Dark, he makes good on these promises. As a whole, this record trumps anything that its predecessors had to offer, almost to the point where it's difficult to imagine that it followed the release of Joy Will Find a Way by only a year. The sound that was merely suggested on his previous recordings is fully realized here: check out the flute and trumpet interplay on the jazz inflected instrumental "Giftbearer," the hypnotic "I'm Gonna Fly Someday" with its irresistible flute, horn, and voice line, and Fred Stone's flügelhorn on "Silver Wheels.
Further Adventures Of, though it may contain Bruce Cockburn's usual mix of beautifully intricate acoustic work and pastoral mysticism, along with the occasional touches of anger and irony, continues the growth that was so evident on his last studio outing In the Falling Dark. And while it may lack anything quite as powerful as "Lord of the Starfields" or the title song from that record, the use of his electric guitar, which is at the forefront on a couple of tracks, brings a bit more of an edge to the proceedings. Lyrically, his odes to God and nature can still at times be as soft as his social relevance can be heavy-handed, but cuts such as the joyful "Rainfall," the bilingual "Pernons La Mer," and the Eastern meditation "Nanzen Ji" get by on their sheer beauty, while "A Montreal Song" and the pensive "Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" are sharp and effective.
Folk singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn often wrote about his Christian faith in the 70s, but in a non-preachy way that emphasised his care for fellow humankind. His songs became more political in the 80s, most notably when he released the angry "If I Had A Rocket Launcher" after visiting a Guatamalan refugee camp on behalf of Oxfam. Though Cockburn has always been popular in his native Canada - he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2001 - he has struggled to find an audience elsewhere, peaking with a No.21 placing in the US Hot 100 with 1979 single "Wondering Where The Lions…