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July 2003 Pick of the Month

You’ve Never Seen Everything
Artist: Bruce Cockburn
Label: High Romance/Rounder
Length: 12 tracks, 67:08 minutes

The songwriter often described as “the social-conscience of Canada” should have the range of his influence extended. With this latest album - chock-full of poignant poetry, satire, spirituality and maybe his best music to date - Bruce Cockburn should be renamed the social conscience of the world. 

I’ve enjoyed Cockburn’s style since first hearing “If a Tree Falls” back in 1989, but to be honest, I haven’t kept pace with his abundance of releases throughout the 90’s. However, a guitarist friend of mine who has told me that he thought Bruce Cockburn was tending to “under-write” his recent songs; meaning they were overly simple and more could be done with them. A fair comment I thought, particularly after hearing his 1994 album Dart to the Heart

However, from the Edge-like guitar and electronic loops of “Tried and Tested,” the dazzling opening track of You’ve Never Seen Everything, it seems clear to me that Bruce is not sitting back on the laurels of a 30 year career anymore and is pushing himself ever onwards. 

With the usual impressive list of collaborators, including Jackson Browne, Sarah Harmer, Emmylou Harris, and Sam Phillips, I’m finding this latest selection of original tunes from Cockburn to be addictive listening, with a blend of the straight-forward and the complex. To begin with, two thirds of the songs on this album clock in at over five-minutes each, demonstrating a respect for the creative spirit to go where the song leads. 

Following the strong beginning and the more relaxed acoustic gentility of “Open,” track three, “All Our Dark Tomorrows,” is where this album’s power is unleashed; a grimy, pulsing guitar riff echoes around an anti-corporate lyric that slights a world leader (guess who) with traditional Cockburn ire. “Trickle Down” picks up a jazzy, Latin vibe - with a fantastic guitar solo from Bruce - to similarly lambaste economics that benefit the rich while fleecing the poor (“Brand new century, private penitentiary /Bank vault utopia padded for the few”). 

After the brief, tender “Everywhere Dance”, the darkly emotional “Put It in Your Heart” is a lament for the tragedy of 9/11 that struggles for some meaning amidst the pain. Similarly, “Postcards from Cambodia” acknowledges the horror of the inhumanity of war and concludes with the wisdom of a prophet; 

This is too big for anger, too big for blame
We stumble through history so humanly lame
So I bow down my head, say a prayer for us all
That we don’t fear the spirit when it comes to call
The stirring Middle-Eastern thrum of “Wait No More” and the sweet “Celestial Horses” give way to the dreamy, abstract nine-minute monologue of the title track, which never labors in spite of its length and again puts the boot into corrupt businessmen, resolving in a truly beautiful chorus. Finally, after looking the evil of the world in the face for so long, Cockburn concludes the album with another prophetic reminder, “Don’t Forget About Delight” to a great, laid-back, countrified groove. 

If my friend is right and Cockburn’s songs throughout the 90’s were “underwritten”, then the album’s acoustic post-script, “Messenger Wind” puts to rout any idea of that trend continuing. With a heart-rending chorus that is sung just once, it is the perfect closer to an extraordinary album that captures one faithful man’s reflections on the birthing pains of a new century;

Messenger wind swooping out of the sky
Lights each tiny speck of the human kaleidoscope with hope
I have never enjoyed a Bruce Cockburn album like I have this one. Perhaps the tragedies and wars that have marked the beginning of the new millennium have focused Cockburn’s talents as a songwriter, demanding truth be told with good melody, celebratory beauty and passion. This, he has achieved. I’m sure he would give it all up for a world that lives in peace, justice and equality, but in the meantime, this album should inspire the rest of us to get on with the job of creating that world which he so powerfully envisions. 

Brendan Boughen 6/24/2003

Yes, it has arrived. Every few years we get another Bruce Cockburn album, the food that our wee souls desire, and here is another lavish banquet of wordsmithery, not just clever in the literary sense but nearly nine months pregnant with social observation, political clout, and spiritual provocation.

Few, nay no one, gives this kind of content for money in a record of songs. Everything that we hope for in Cockburn is present and correct on this his first album of new tunes since 1999's _Breakfast in New Orleans and Dinner in Timbuktu_. There is the personal soul searching discovery as on Tried and Tested and Wait No More. There is the obligatory postcard from somewhere, this time it literally is titled "Postcard from Cambodia: a travelogue lament from Asia" to add to his previous despatches from Nicaragua, Mozambique, Nepal, Chile and Eastern Europe. All come with a vicious indictment on humanity's inability to live right in regard to our neighbors. A close relation here is the title track with its catalogue of inhumanitarian acts. Both are spoken word pieces, littered with that descriptive detail of streets and sunsets and the living on and below the two. In the latter there are a little too graphic account of some violent acts, too!

There are two recurring themes on this album. First, the dark side. On "All Our Dark Tomorrows," he sings:

I can see in the dark -- it's where I used to live
I see excess and the gaping need
Follow the money -- see where it leads
It's to shrunken men stuffed up with greed
That greed, permeates the record. "Trickle Down" is about the deadly delusion that capitalism so diseased will trickle down sustenance for all. On "You've Never Seen Everything," it is the leaders of business who leads the leaders.

But the bright side is that never before has a Cockburn album been so riddled with light. Obviously his Christian faith has brought hopefulness and never so abundant. On "Celestial Horses," "there's a darkness in the Canyon/But the light comes pounding through for me and for you." "Don't forget About Delight" is a reminder that no matter how stranded or alone, there is still light pounding through and "Everywhere Dance" that "in the ebb and flow of death and birth/In wounded streets and whispered prayer/The dance is the truth...and it's everywhere." We close with the "Messenger Wind" and it is "sweeping out of the sky/Lights each tiny speck in the human kaleidoscope/with hope."

Lyrically, it is as always brilliant. Where I question St. Bruce on this album is that musically it is a little dense. Too few melodies or songs of the "Pacing The Cage" kind. The poetic intensity is always in need of those one or two little gentle moments and I am not sure that where he has tried to contemporise the songs that it ever really works. It can too frequently sound like one of his eighties albums. Of course there is nothing wrong with that, but I am not sure that it is completely satisfactory either.

Can you tell that I am struggling to find the confidence to criticise. I would just like to get T-Bone Burnette back for an album. Or even more interestingly Daniel Lanois. We have all kinds of guest appearing here from Sam Phillips to Emmylou Harris (imagine Emmylou guesting!!!), the frogs of Zambia and Jackson Browne. There's another possible producer; Jackson Browne. Or maybe Ani DIFranco. Just shake it up a little next time Bruce. We love it but we want to really, really love it!

Steve Stockman  July 19, 2003


 
 

Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He has just finished a book on U2 - Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2, is the poetic half of Stevenson and Samuel who have just released their debut album Gracenotes and he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day or night @ www.bbc.co.uk/ni/religion/rhythmandsoul). He has his own web page - Rhythms of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org. He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.

 Four years since the release of his underrated Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu album, we find Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn ready to tackle the very real issues facing humanity on his latest Rounder Records release, You've Never Seen Everything. Cockburn is not afraid to "speak truth to power," as the tired old bumper sticker says. I found this out back in the 1980's while listening to his overtly political songs that addressed U.S. intervention in Central America, human rights abuses in the Third World and environmental degradation across the globe. 

On the twelve-song You've Never Seen Everything Cockburn  is in top form. He seems re-energized. I'd have to say this is his strongest album since his classic 1988 release Big Circumstance.

On the opening track, "Tried and Tested," drummers Gary Craig and Ben Riley keep a hypnotic rhythm as Cockburn's  vocal cadence addresses how human greed prevents the world's problems from being solved. With its bright violin, courtesy of Hugh Marsh and some lovely backing vocals from singer Sarah Harmer, Cockburn sings and plays guitar on "Open" with a real vibrancy. 

Don't let the mysterious sounds of rain forest amphibians opening up "All Our Dark Tomorrows fool you. They're a warning of what lies ahead in the dark places of the human heart. Very Conrad-esque. On this cryptic track, Cockburn sings of "shrunken men stuffed up with greed," conspiring how to make more money and generate more misery for the world's people. And the hits just keep on coming. On the jazzy "Trickle Down," Cockburn points fingers at the merchants of crass commercialism, the soul-less war profiteers and faceless mega-corporations. 

"What used to pass for education now look more like ignoration / Take the people's money and slip it to the corporation / Yellow rain golden shower, pesticide firepower / Summon feudal demons of sweatshop subjugation." Powerful.

The horrific images on 9/11 are addressed on "Put It In Your Heart," as is the religious fundamentalism --“ the tunnel vision and fear of change" --  that was behind the attacks. This one stays on the brain hours and days after hearing it. 

The legacy of brutal, murderous Cambodian dictator Pol Pot and his "killing fields" are featured in "Postcards from Cambodia," a poetic and largely spoken word piece where he says, 

"This is too big for anger / It's too big for blame / We stumble through history so humanly lame." 

One surprise song is "Celestial Horses," a song he wrote back in 1978 that is very John Denver-esque in nature. Jackson Browne provides harmony vocals on this mellow song about finding a semblance of peace amidst the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. 

And then the listener snaps back to reality with the menacing spoken word title track, which comes across like dark snapshots taken by David Lynch with its "bad magic and gangrene politics."

Cockburn, it's safe to say, is a Christian in the true sense of the word. He is speaking up for those who have no voice. He has true compassion and is unafraid to show his listeners that the emperor has no clothes and that the empire is not infallible. Cockburn knows we can do better. 

You've got to give him props for speaking the truth and sharing it with us in such an articulate fashion. 

For more information, go to www.brucecockburn.com or www.rounder.com. 

Andrew West Griffin  11/09/03

 

   
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