Well into the fourth decade of his recording career, singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn continues to grow as an artist and to remain relevant as an observer of this rickety old world in which we live. It’s no coincidence that his best work has come during those times in recent history when global affairs have been the most precarious. He made his first great album in 1980, hitting his stride with his newly found political voice on Humans. “When you’re the fighter / You’re the politician’s tool”, from that album, resonates today. Stealing Fire, a thoroughly excellent pop/folk/rock record, came out in 1984, deep in the belly of the Reaganomics beast, with Iran and the Contras soon to become a major scandal. And Cockburn was pissed. Not at all a naïve hippie, Bruce was looking to get himself a rocket launcher. And that was way before everybody else had one and they became all trendy. In 2003, still stunned by the white-hot birth of the Age of Terror in North America, Bruce Cockburn issued his strongest disc in years (and one of the very best from his twenty-nine LP discography), the dark and expansive You’ve Never Seen Everything. Again, he was pissed. I’ll leave it up to you to decide just who is the “village idiot”, who “takes the throne”, and who’s a “parasite feeding on / Everybody’s bag of rage”.
It’s three years later, and few would argue that the world is in better shape than it was when Cockburn issued that album. In 2005, he was rendered Speechless, but we shouldn’t have worried that he’d run out of things to say. Though less seethingly urgent than You’ve Never Seen Everything, you don’t have to get any further than the title to know that, on Life Short Call Now, Cockburn is still feeling the anxiety brought on by a planet in turmoil. Only now, the rage has turned inward, mutating into sorrow. This new album is awash in melancholy.
Cockburn’s sadness radiates out from his portrait of the city that is currently at the heart of global despair. “This Is Baghdad” is a beautiful song, despite the “uranium dust and the smell of decay”; it is reverent, despite the song’s subjects being “carbombed and carjacked and kidnapped and shot”. An acoustic guitar figure and a brushed cymbal underpin its movement, while a tastefully arranged string orchestra weeps and looks longingly back towards the city’s past glory.
If “Baghdad” is the album’s best large-themed track, then “Mystery” is its sweetly understated counterpart. Set to a slow and shuffling beat, it’s about the wonder and beauty of life’s smaller moments: “Moon over junkyard where the snow lies bright / Can set my heart to burn”. Its use of repetition and a fireside-simple, catchy melody make it an instant Cockburn classic. I’ve been humming the tune for days now.
Life Short Call Now, while set to an even-keeled mood from start to finish, still flourishes with a variety of songwriting. Apparently, even after releasing Speechless just last year, Cockburn still wasn’t through keeping quiet, giving us the pretty instrumental ditty “Peace March”. But what could be said about a peace march that wouldn’t feel cloying? A recent trip to Kingston, Jamaica, apparently got Bruce to rapping on “Slow Down Fast”. I’m not sure it’s his strongest talent (although, to his credit, his raps have always been in his own style), but the track features a nifty acoustic guitar lead and a heady trumpet solo. “Tell the Universe”, meanwhile, drifts along on a slow Latin beat and features the great line: “You’ve been projecting your shit at the world”. The subject of this psychoanalytical barb has “bloodstained shoes” and a “dunce’s grin”, and has to “notify the next of kin”. Cockburn’s pal Ani DiFranco joins in with backing vocals on “Different When It Comes to You”, the chimey first single about opening up in unexpected ways with a new lover.
There are several standout songs on Life Short, but a few lackluster tracks keep the album just beyond the reach of the upper echelon of Bruce Cockburn releases. The two other instrumental numbers, “Jerusalem Poker” and “Nude Descending a Staircase”, don’t add much; the latter finishes the album and is an awkward appendage. Cockburn’s vocals on the amorphous “To Fill My Heart” are mostly a sour monotone. Nonetheless, it feels nitpicky to point out the non-great moments, when so much of Life Short Call Now finds the singer-songwriter at the top of his game. The good and great songs easily overpower the middleweights, making for a very strong Bruce Cockburn album that even his casual fans will want to pick up.
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