Bruce Cockburn: Poet of the Apocalypse
However dubious a distinction, Poet of the Apocalypse belongs to only one Bruce—and it sure as hell isn’t Bruce Springsteen. It happens to be a fiery, Canadian wordsmith named Bruce Cockburn, who, with each passing record, defies everything we’ve come to believe about aging artists living fat on Triple A radio. Whether Cockburn is even capable of a rehash is debatable, but the spellbinding You’ve Never Seen Everything accomplishes a most unlikely feat for a musician 27 records into his career. It reconciles decades of stylistic disparity while suggesting some intriguing new directions.
Regarded as a virtuoso picker, Cockburn has moved away from his traditionally guitar-centric arrangements to denser, more integrated soundscapes, a tack that may sound suspicious to fans of his rootsier material. In the same way Chris Whitley’s Rocket House introduced synthesizers and samples to angular folk-blues, much of You’ve Never Seen Everything injects a dizzy otherworldliness to otherwise straightforward political rock instrumentation.
Though Cockburn is nothing if not eclectic in his styles, You’ve Never Seen Everything owes much of its world music tone to violinist Hugh Marsh, who, with the exception of “Wise Users” (a The Charity of Night outtake), makes his first Cockburn studio appearance since 1988’s Big Circumstance. His electric violin snakes its way through nearly every track on the album, rearing its head in a variety of guises. On the simultaneously celebratory and yearning “Open”, Marsh offers a fairly standard yet poignant choral accompaniment, while “All Our Dark Tomorrows” features eerie synth-like strokes slicing through a murky groove. Elsewhere, on “Trickle Down”, Marsh and pianist Andy Milne combine for a rousing, jazz-inflected indictment of right-wing Reaganomic delusion, recalling the off-kilter production of early ‘80s albums such as The Trouble with Normal.
The use of female vocalists, a trend beginning on 1997’s The Charity of Night, continues to yield a rich, sensual sound. This is quickly evidenced in the opener, “Tried and Tested”, a swirling mix of hypnotic rhythms and loops buoyed by the honey-dipped vocal swells of Sam Phillips. Cockburn characteristically resists the jet set persona, stripping any romantic notions we might have about the breakfast-in-New-Orleans-dinner-in-Timbuktu life he has chosen: “Pierced by beauty’s blade, skinned by wind / Begged for more—was given—begged again / I’m still here, I’m still here”.
Indeed, Cockburn’s as present and relevant as he’s ever been. To get an idea of just how simmering and potent a socio-political commentary he’s brewed, notice how carefully he qualifies the tone of the record: “We’re confronted with great darkness as a species right now, as spiritual creatures on this planet,” he says. “I don’t think it’s hopeless, and I don’t want this album to make people feel hopeless. But I think we’ve got to call a spade a spade.”
The record’s central thesis is the nine-minute title track, one of the most chilling spoken word deliveries ever committed to tape. It actually trumps “The Charity of Night”, which until now stood as the crowning achievement in a journalistic noir vocal style Cockburn started developing circa Lou Reed’s New York. While it’s tempting to interpret the song solely as a reaction to the freakish depths of human cruelty, a subject of which Cockburn has almost professorial knowledge, the song is more vast and panoramic than that. Thematically, it gathers much of the record together, while still preserving the polarities therein.
“On the other side of the world”, Cockburn observes all too matter-of-factly, “the drug squad busts a child’s birthday, puts bullets in the family dog and the blood goes all over the baby”. And then in the next stanza, he recalls the gruesome details of a bizarre, vehicular homicide/suicide: “Forensics reveals the lady has pitchfork wounds in her chest—pitchfork! And that the same or a similar instrument has been screwed to the dash to make sure the driver goes too. You’ve never”, he pauses for emphasis, “seen everything”.
Cockburn is no stranger to lamenting the tortured human condition, but as far back as the mid-‘70s masterpiece In the Falling Dark, his ruminations tended to be more distant, metaphysical and in some cases aloof with cynicism. More than eye-rolling at grisly headlines, Cockburn discloses an even greater sense of sadness and vulnerability here, made all the more compelling by an alternate meaning in the title phrase. “You’ve never seen everything” also refers to lost opportunities, the ever-present signs of redemption in plain view but ignored by human despair and greed. “Ride the ribbon of shadow”, goes the latter half of the chorus, “never feel the light falling all around”.
Before the bedside bottle of pills becomes too alluring, hope comes knocking in the form of “Don’t Forget about Delight”—as if we might have after such an epic downer. But for Cockburn, it’s ultimately a self-reminder to put all of his rage in perspective, even when “meaning feels like it’s evaporating”. There’s a larger context, he seems to say, in which humans are but one fraction of the living, and that is reason enough for optimism—and, yes, even delight. It’s God’s (non-) answer to Job echoed in these closing verses: “Spring birds peck among the pressed-down grasses / Clouds like zeppelins cross the sky / Anger drips and pools and then it passes / And I say a prayer that I don’t forget about delight”.