When songwriters get past 70, I tend to look at the final song on their latest albums to see what musical words they might intentionally be signing off with.
Label: TrueNorth Records
Time: 11 tracks / 51 mins
Cockburn is now 72, and while he’s probably got a fair few years in him still (I hope so, as his youngest daughter is still only six), this album ends with:
“No matter which tribe you're born to there's a way in for you.
Come from any quarter -- you can be a citizen too,
'Cause there's twelve gates to the city. Hallelu.”
While it might look like he’s greasing the palm of his maker, to keep in his good books, the album does reflect his return to church after many years. He said recently, “I’m not quite sure if I’m a Christian or not, but I’m thinking a lot about that.”
Singers from his new church feature on five tracks; the last two are his take on classic gospel; and with a delightful pun, his “Stab at Matter” gets mystically eschatological (“you got transformation, thunder shaking, seal is broken and the spirit flies”).
Generally, this has all his usual hallmarks: observation and passionate concerns about both the human and ecological states of the world; spiritual reflection; and a lone instrumental to spotlight his guitar skills.
In this case, the latter is the title track, which refers to the osteoarthritis that is making his fingerwork harder to achieve.
When Cockburn was commissioned to write the track “Three Al Purdy’s” about the late Canadian poet for a documentary, it re-started his song-writing. Three years of composing his memoirs had dried up all his creative juices. They are flowing pretty freely now, though.
He refers to the opener “States I’m in” as a dark night of the soul song, starting at sunset and ending with dawn, remarking, “Maybe it’s also a play on words about me living in the States.” It begins with guitar that can only be Cockburn – the guitar style has his DNA right through it – and as it progresses, Cockburn displays his delight in playing with sound and neural vision:
“One day fit and one day fat
One day flush and one day flat
Reality distorted like a sat-on hat.
One day I feel like I'm in control
The next I'm suspended in a bottomless hole
A drunk trying to shinny up a greased pole.”
You could write a commentary on “Forty Years in the Wilderness” and how it seems to describe his route back to church after decades, and how it has a sense of comfort and relief about it.
It may be his 33rd album (or thereabouts) but he still has ways to keep it fresh. Ron Miles adds some thoroughly enjoyable jazz cornet to several tracks, and I don’t remember hearing that before with Cockburn. Producer Colin Linden does some wonderful work to keep it authentic, but adding sonic details (just listen carefully to "States I'm In").
Notwithstanding his anxiety about the world that he has brought a young daughter into, his tone is a little lighter lately. “Cafe Society” describes the kinds of conversation you might overhear over a morning drink. It includes the lines, “flapping lips of flatulence bellow ‘vote for ME’ / Everything is spinning in the looming entropy,” but Cockburn seems to appreciate the human warmth of conversation as he wryly notes, “misery loves company.”
Bone on Bone doesn’t quite match up to his previous release Small Source of Comfort (how could it without that wonderful Nixon track and two instrumentals?) but it’s close – and that was arguably his best work since 1984’s Stealing Fire.