Despite his previous 30 albums released over a career spanning more than 40 years including 11 albums in as many years, Bruce Cockburn (Coh-burn) the prolific Canadian singer-songwriter and accomplished guitar player had been on hiatus from studio recording for a while. Cockburn’s previous studio release (Life Short Call Now) had been more than five years ago. But he’s back with yet another really fine eclectic, acoustic, collection of tunes that feature his melodic voice, nimble finger picking syncopated folk/blues/jazz-inspired 6 and 12 string guitars, and some talented support musicians including Jenny Scheinman on jazz violin and background vocals.
I’m not sure about the significance of the album’s title, Small Source of Comfort, but those who have followed Cockburn all these years will be pleased to hear a familiar old friend – perhaps he was alluding to the musical equivalent of comfort food.
Cockburn often explores new musical territory and in his self-written liner notes reveals that he initially conceived of the album as “eclectic and noisy, with gongs and jack hammers and fiercely distorted guitars.” But fortunately for us, he’s been living in an urban apartment lately and concerns about disturbing his neighbors steered him to a considerably more mellow acoustic toolbox from which to compose. While working within the framework of traditional folk however, he varies tempos, transitions in and out of major and minor keys, sprinkles in diminished and augmented jazz chords, and weaves in a compliment of accomplished session musicians to fill out the sound. The result is a collection of eclectic and fresh new tunes.
Ironically I was first previewing part of the CD in my car on my way home from work on a cold rainy night and the slow and melancholy Driving Away came on. Gary Craig’s subtle brushes on the snare setting the right mood, “Driving away, blue as the night”, my windshield wipers set to intermittent joined in to augment the percussion seemingly in sync. Ditto on the equally haunting back-to-back instrumentals, Parnassus and Fog (subtitled San Francisco magic and mystery) and Ancestors.
While not apolitical, Small Source of Comfort is a bit smoother around the edges and self-reflective than Cockburn’s full tilt, outraged lyrics he’s best known for: “If I had a rocket launcher, I’d blow some son of a bitch away.” The album opens with The Iris of the World, the up tempo introspective, self-deprecating tune in which he reveals, “I’m good at catching rainbows, not so good at catching trout, I’m good at blowing holes in things and ranting in self-doubt.” In Call Me Rose, Richard Nixon is reincarnated as a poor woman from the projects to try to rehabilitate his soul: ”My name is Richard Nixon only now I’m a girl, you wouldn’t know it but I used to be the king of the world.” Each One Lost is a ballad motivated by watching the caskets of two Canadian soldiers killed in combat, “Each one lost is everyone’s loss you see, each one lost is a vital part of you and me.” There’s more of Cockburn’s drole humor in Called me Back where he speculates on why his “so-called buddy” hasn’t returned his phone call.
Whether you are a long-time Cockburn fan as I am, or if you’re checking him out for the first time, Small Source of Comfort is just that… and more. Bruce will be appearing live at the Bolton Center in Bay Shore, NY on May 11.
A Bruce Cockburn classic (Last Night of the World):
Check out this video from the Pete Seeger 90th Birthday Concert including Bruce Cockburn and some fellow Canadian friends: