Brilliant as Bruce Cockburn is with lyrics, a whole instrumental album is just as much him at his best. It might even be the first one I'd choose to play.

Label: True North Records
Time: 11 tracks / 57 mins

This album is a real surprise. Cockburn named his last release Bone on Bone, because he was suffering from arthritis to such an extent that it was affecting his guitar playing.

One might expect his response to major on singing, where arthritis has no effect, covering over any guitar-playing deficiencies, but no. Maybe he thought it his last chance to feature his guitar work before the fingers do give up.

Cockburn’s recent albums have generally been better for instrumental tracks and here he does the whole disc wordlessly. In some players’ hands that might mean a lot of similar sounding music, but this album revels in variety. Yes, there are plenty of his cascading compositions, but the style differs from track to track.

Opener “Bardo Rush” is fairly structured in song format, although maybe not a tune that would be easy to sing to; while by contrast, it is easy to imagine Cockburn singing to the early tune of “Easter,” which slows things down to a more reflective pace, before changing into a brisker affair (that would be the resurrection, then).

“Blind Willie” (obviously) and “The Groan” are blues pieces; “Sweetness and Light” has a rag-like feel; and “The Mt Lefroy Waltz” turns remarkably jazzy, thanks to its chords and some discreet scat singing to Ron Miles’ cornet. Cockburn even explores his Scottish ancestry on “Pibroch: Wind in the Valley,” which  definitely evokes craggy highland mountains and chilly winds.

While Cockburn’s guitar work has always been eloquent and technically proficient, only three of these eleven pieces are solo guitar. Colin Linden joins him with dobro, baritone guitar and mandolin on three tracks; a few have percussion; but most noticeably, Cockburn employs his collection of various bells to great effect. The MLK-inspired “April in Memphis” features chimes, “Seven Daggers” uses a selection and on “Bells of Gethsemane,” they add a disquieting element to evoke the stresses Jesus felt in that garden.

While arthritis may have slowed down his playing – and that is questionable, when you hear the fingerwork of “Angels in the Half Light” – it has taken nothing away from the tunefulness, creativity and distinctive style that make this such an enjoyable and mood-inducing collection.

Oh, and that weird title? It comes from a translation of his family motto. I’d go with the alternative translation ‘Music excites.’ Bruce’s does.

Derek Walker