Mike: If you joined us last week, you would have read about the first five albums in our Consummate Cockburn Collection. This week we bring you albums six to ten. I am again joined by my good friend Peter Heath.
Peter: It is challenging to capture Bruce Cockburn and his work in a couple of sentences. He is definitely a man of Christian faith, but the outworking of that faith is dramatically different than in my own life. Interestingly, there isn’t a whole lot in his songs that you won’t find in the poetry of the Bible.
It seems to me that most of the time he is: (1) sure of what he believes; (2) upset and torn by what he sees; (3) trying to bring (1) and (2) together. I think that most of us shortchange one of these three things; at least Cockburn makes the effort. Then again, at other times, I have no idea what he is up to. He almost seems to revel in contradiction, in being a contrarian even towards himself.
Mike: Well with that, let us jump into our next five albums. The first of which really introduces to what you were talking about in your three points
Number 6 – The Trouble With Normal – 1983 (Mike’s #3, Peter’s #8)
Mike: It was hard for me to rank The Trouble With Normal. I initially slotted it in to my number one, but it ended up slipping down a couple of notches. Although I loved every single song on this album, the best songs on this album didn’t rise above the best songs on our composite #1 and #2 album picks. I think it was the first Cockburn album I ever bought, and I listened to it over, and over, and over again.
You will notice that five of our top six albums span the years of 1979-1984. I was aged sixteen to twenty-one during that time period, and I think that those late teen years through to University life are formative musically wise for many of us.
Peter: Definitely. Same for me.
Mike: Chronologically this one falls right before Bruce’s full throated activism in Stealing fire. I think what he sees and writes about in Trouble With Normal motivates him to taking his trip to Central America that he writes about in his subsequent album.
Many of these songs were written during the midst of the recession in 1981 where it was hard to be particularly optimistic.
The title song, Trouble With Normal, is one that has stood the test of time. Hard to believe it was written almost 40 years ago when you get lyrics like…
Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs — “Security comes first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse
Callous men in business costume speak computerese
Play pinball with the Third World trying to keep it on its knees
Their single crop starvation plans put sugar in your tea
And the local Third World’s kept on reservations you don’t see
“It’ll all go back to normal if we put our nation first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse
Fashionable fascism dominates the scene
When ends don’t meet it’s easier to justify the means
Tenants get the dregs and landlords get the cream
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream
Brings us men in gas masks dancing while the shells burst
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse
For those reading this, any lines jump out at you as particularly relevant today?
This album comes across to me as Cockburn feeling discordant with the world and perhaps within himself. This really comes across in Civilization And Its Discontent where he writes:
Two forward and one back
Blind fingers groping for the right track
What’s to do when a stab and a pat on the back look like the same thing?
Civilization and its discontents
When all’s been said and all the money spent
Trying to beat the system of the world’s events
Gets you nowhere…
We see a glimpse of his Christianity, but it is a discouraging glimpse:
So many people so lost you feel sorry
But too much pathos just makes you angry
And even though I know who loves me I’m not that much less lost
The song ends with a slowing down of increasing discordant notes which aptly fit the lyrics, and you are left with the sense that there is a lot wrong in the world.
In Tropic Moon we get a sense of what is to come in Stealing Fire. Although this is written before his Central America trip, you get the sense that he has heard what is going on, and not only does he write about it, but he chooses to act on it as well.
Away from the river
Away from the smoke of the burning
Subject of government directives
One sad guitar note
Echoes of the wall of the jungle
Seen from the air they’re just targets with nowhere to run to
Children of rape
Raised on malnutrition
Men in camouflage
Filled with a sense of mission
Light through the wire mesh
Plays on the president’s pistol
Like the gleam of a bead of sweat in the flow of a candle
Hear the cry in the tropic night
Should be the cry of love but it’s a cry of fright
Some people never see the light
Till it shines through bullet holes
Peter: The title of this album, and the title song itself, capture in a single phrase the thematic thrust of the whole collection of songs here. And as you point out, so many of Cockburn’s observations here are still relevant today. Maybe that’s because the underpinnings of Western civilization haven’t changed in 40 years, it has just continued to slide where dark hearts take it. The imagery in the lyrics is extremely strong throughout. On top of the ones you’ve mentioned, I’ll add a couple more that still stand up. “This bluegreen ball in black space, filled with beauty even now, battered and abused and lovely” from Planet of the Clowns. “Out of my throat appears this chuckle, a true 20th Century sound, a little crazed and having no tonal centre” from Hoop Dancer. “Pimping dreams of riches for everybody … Misplaced your faith and the candy man’s gone” from Candy Man’s Gone.
Mike: So,why did you rate this album down at #8, if you like so much about it?
Peter: Great question Mike and thanks for asking. It’s the musical choices: too much synth and not enough guitar. While that makes for a unique sound that works well on Trouble, Hoop Dancer and Civilization, overall it was too much for me especially when Cockburn was (and is) a true genius with the guitar. For example, I would love to hear Candy Man or Trouble reworked as a guitar song. I don’t suppose it’ll ever happen, but you can dream right?
Top Songs: Again, not a bad song on the entire original album. Mike quite liked the new vibe, Peter not so much.
Number 7 – The Charity of Night – 1997 (Peter’s #6, Mike’s #12)
Peter: Cockburn had another fine run of releases on either side of the new millenium. For me, Charity of Night is the best of that series, mostly due to the opening triptych.
Mike: Okay, you got me there, what is a triptych? Didn’t we used to get those from the Automobile Association before going on a journey? [consults google]. Ah, a piece of art in three panels or pieces. Please elaborate for us.
Peter: He starts with Night Train, which sounds like one (thank you Rob Wasserman for the fine bass work), and builds a stream of consciousness that culminates with a warning (in the absence of compassion there is cancer, whose banner waves over palaces and mean streets) and plays out with a searing guitar solo (not many truly searing solos in Cockburn’s discography). The driving stream continues on Get Up Jonah, Cockburn avoiding his own situation, finally pinning himself down under a cacophony of metaphors (“a solitary horseman – waiting. Lashed to the wheel, whipping into the storm. Get up, Jonah, it’s your time to be born”). The drive gives way to way to a more meditative sound but the introspection continues on Pacing the Cage.
Mike: If I did have a top 10 list of songs, and it sounds like I might have one by the end of this process (no promises), Pacing the Cage would be on it. Steve Bell tells how within the first couple of minutes listening to it, he was curled up on the floor clutching his stomach. I had a similar, although not quite so visceral reaction.
Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it’s pointing toward
Sometimes you feel like you live too long
Days drip slowly on the page
You catch yourself
Pacing the cage
I found the song mesmerizing, The melody and guitar match the lyrics and imagery perfectly. I listened to this one song on repeat for maybe an hour the first time I heard it.
As a side note, this is one of many places where sunrise, sunset, or moonrise form a vivid introduction into a song.
The album as a whole was outside my top ten because I thought the album had one amazing song, a few good ones, and the rest weren’t that memorable.
Peter: It seems to me between The Falling Dark (1976) and World Of Wonders (1986), Cockburn was consistently able to fashion entire albums that were strong and engaging. After Big Circumstance (1988), his albums became more varied mixing several great songs with lesser efforts. This pattern can be seen in the way that Charity Of Night wanders widely – in the music, lyrics and dare I say even the quality and impact.
But the personal frustration is never far from the surface as it blends with more travel, another warzone, memories of old encounters and comes to a desperately uneasy final question on Strange Waters, “You’ve been leading me beside strange waters, streams of beautiful lights in the night. But where is my pastureland in these dark valleys?” Unlike most pop music/film/etc, Cockburn does not even attempt to resolve this question. No easy “it’ll all work out” of any kind. And I am OK with that. My own life is not resolved on any given Thursday night. Why does a music album have to do what I cannot?
Mike: Cockburn’s music reminds of a church billboard I once saw advertising an upcoming sermon series: “It’s not always a wonderful life.” While we have an ultimate hope, in Christ, we are never promised the journey is going to be easy. Sometimes “life is tough, and then you die”. Yesterday was Mother’s day, and I was glad that my church had an acknowledgement that, “Hey, this might be a really hard day for you, and we want to know that we want to be with you as you experience that.” Cockburn reminds me of the Psalmist David, and it is not surprising that many of his songs end up sounding like Psalms.
- Night Train
- Get up Jonah
- Pacing the Cage
Number 8 – Big Circumstance – 1988 (Mike’s #6, Peter’s #14)
Peter: This album has many wonderful moments, and the list of influences on the liner notes is amazing. But the album doesn’t quite connect with me for some reason. If a Tree Falls kicks off the album with great momentum, who knew you could build a song around an old cliche and a whammy bar? The image of cattle as “grain eaters, methane dispensers” has stayed with me. Shipwrecked At The Stable Door manages to mix a happy, dancy soundtrack with a potshot at Pierre Trudeau (well, that’s who I think it is) and a postmodern beatitude. Try that this weekend LOL
I suppose the way I feel about this album can be summarized well by two songs in particular. Tibetan Side of Town shows Bruce’s expertise with the travelogue tune. The instrumentation and arrangement hint at Asia while the lyrics carry us on the “big red Enfield Bullet” through “running winding streets” where we meet the young and old, the crushed and the innocent. It’s all fantastic, I am just kind of sad that the destination of this song is “hot millet beer.” The second song is The Gift. I love the way it recasts Jesus’ comment to Nicodemus about the movementAs and work of the Spirit. There is a rolling, moving groove to the music built with Fergus Jemison Marsh on stick (I think) and Michael Sloski on drums and percussion. Instruments join in and there is a nice lift in the chorus and yet I feel like the band stuck to the groove too much. I’m waiting for something that never quite arrives. The song is almost amazing, but not quite. So is the album.
Mike: For the most part I would agree with you, except… there are just too many songs on the album that I really appreciate. Don’t Feel Your Touch, has a great guitar riff that pulls the song together in a pensive longing way. It just happens to coincide with when I started dating my wife, so this song bring back some very positive memories as well.
The last light of day crept away like a drunkard after gin
A hint of chanted prayer now whispers from the fresh night wind
To this shattered heart and soul held together by habit and skin
And this half-gnawed bone of apprehension
Buried in my brain
As I don’t feel your touch, again.
As someone who has been writing for Internet Monk for over 12 years now, the Gospel of Bondage holds a special meaning for me:
You read the Bible in your special ways
You’re fond of quoting certain things it says –
Mouth full of righteousness and wrath from above
But when do we hear about forgiveness and love?
Sometimes you can hear the Spirit whispering to you,
But if God stays silent, what else can you do
Except listen to the silence? if you ever did you’d surely see
That God won’t be reduced to an ideology
Such as the gospel of bondage…
This in a nutshell is what Internet Monk is all about. Helping people move beyond the forms of Christianity that have bound them in the past. It should come as no small surprise that there are a few Cockburn fans who are faithful readers of the blog.
Anything Can Happen, takes a morbid subject (death), and turns it into a fun list of reasons why he doesn’t want to say goodnight.
You could have gone off the Bloor Street viaduct
I could have been run down in the street
You could have got botulism anytime
I could have gone overboard into the sea
Anything can happen
To put out the light,
Is it any wonder
I don’t want to say goodnight?
It is a very creative song, very similar, but opposite in tone to Weird Al Yancovic’s song, One More Minute:
I’d rather have my blood sucked out by leeches
Shove an icepick under a toenail or two
I’d rather clean all the bathroom in Grand Central Station… [wait for it]
with my tongue
Than spend one more minute with you
A little bit of context here. The Bloor Street Viaduct, as it is commonly known, is a bridge that towers over the Don Valley in Toronto. It was also a suicide magnet, being the site of over 500 suicides before preventative fences was installed in 2003. In 1997 it saw a suicide on average every 22 days. Every time I drive by it (about once a year) I am reminded of this song, and the fact that life can be short and fleeting. I know that kind of casts a downer on a rather fun song, but Bruce was and is a paradox who seems to be able to hold the two in juxtaposition.
- Tibetan Side Of Town
- The Gift
- If A Tree Falls
- Gospel Of Bondage
- Don’t Feel Your Touch
- Anything Can Happen
Number 9 – Night Vision – 1973 (Mike’s #7, Peter’s #13)
Peter: It’s 1973, Bruce records his 4th album somewhat unintentionally with a band and we get the first hint of where he is going to go in the 80s. Mind you, it starts with Foxglove, a solo acoustic instrumental. Foxglove, isn’t that your favourite Cockburn instrumental Mike?
Mike: It certainly was at one point! Although it may have been eventually edged out by Water Into Wine. Islands in a Black Sky, also on this album is also a fine instrumental piece. As a quick aside, in 2005 Cockburn released an album Speechless, which is an instrumental only collection. While it didn’t make either of our top ten lists, if you appreciate really good guitar playing, Speechless is an album worth listening to.
As for Foxglove, I believe this is the only song where Cockburn utilizes a drop C tuning. That is, the guitar is tuned in such a way that when strummed without using the left hand a C chord is produced. This allows him to get very creative on the frets with his left hand while picking with his right. I practiced this song for hours upon hours. I finally got it down, but only at about 2/3rds of the speed the Cockburn plays it at.
Peter: You Don’t Have To Play The Horses gives us banjo-driven blues. Yes, you read that right. Transported on that banjo are lasting observations like “you don’t have to play the horses, life’s a gamble all the same” and “anyone can be a soldier, it’s a prevalent disease”. There is real power in the imagery of God Bless The Children.
You know, at some point it seems repetitive to point out yet another genius lyric, but that is half of what has made Cockburn so enduringly amazing. Lots of writers can drop an adroit line or metaphor once or twice in an album. But many metaphorical lyrics age poorly and most writers have a limited supply to mine. Bruce has avoided easy slang throughout his career, and so lyrics from 50 years ago remain relevant … and 40 years ago and 30 years ago …
Mike: The other song I like on this album, other than the ones you have already mentioned, is Mama Just Want to Barrelhouse. Not sure what that means, but it is a fun rollicking song.
- You Don’t Have To Play The Horses
- Mama Just Wants To Barrelhouse All Night Long
- God Bless the Children
- Islands in a Black Sky
Number 10 – Nothing But a Burning Light – 1991 (Mike’s #10, Peter’s #11)
Peter: The great momentum of the electric-pop-folk fusion thing from Inner City Front and Stealing Fire continued on World of Wonders but ended up feeling a bit forced on Big Circumstance, at least for me. Then came Nothing But A Burning Light, with its understated production by T-Bone Burnett and elegant organ work from Booker T Jones. It was a relief to hear Cockburn’s guitar work out front again, including some cool and apropos resonator guitar.
Kit Carson, a cautionary bit of revisionist history, calls us to think hard about the motives of those in power, as well as the wisdom of our own choices. And how about this line from Mighty Trucks Of Midnight: “I believe it’s a sin to try and make things last forever. Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day.” How many of us live out our lives trapped in an earthbound existence, even when we claim to believe in eternity?
I love the convention-shattering portrait of Jesus spun up in Blind Willie Johnson’s Soul of a Man (“teaching the lawyers and the doctors how to raise a man from the grave”). Bruce puts the first days of Jesus into painfully contemporary terms with Herod’s paranoia and death squads in Cry of a Tiny Babe. And it all wraps up with his declaration that despite his age, he’ll be a child of the wind, till the end of his days. And in lots of ways, that should be enough for any of us, to be a child of the Wind, wherever He takes us.
Mike: “Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a Tiny Babe.” What a lyric! What powerful words. The Incarnation was an event like nothing ever seen before, and Bruce seems to have captured its essence in this one short phrase.
There are other powerful songs on this album too. It is hard to believe that Mighty Trucks of Midnight was written nearly 30 years ago, as it expresses some of the anger that Trump was able to harness in the last election.
Used to have a town but the factory moved away
Down to Mexico where they work for hardly any pay
Used to have a country but they sold it down the river
Like a repossessed farm auctioned off to the highest bidder
Mighty trucks of midnight
The song, One of the Best Ones, is a sweet expression of friendship.
Guess I’d get along without you
If I had no choice
But please never make it so I have to
So with that I want to say thanks to Peter for his many years of comradeship and friendship. A couple of weeks ago I talked about Mitch, and how meaningful he is to me. Peter falls into that category as well. We have been close friends for 38 years now and it has been an amazing run. Peter is indeed “One of the Best Ones”.
Top Songs (With this many it is surprising it didn’t make it higher in our list):
- A Dream Like Mine.
- Mighty Trucks Of Midnight
- One Of The Best Ones
- Cry Of A Tiny Babe…
- Kit Carson
- Child of the Wind
Well that is it for our top ten album list. In part three next week we will talk about some of our favourite songs that weren’t part of the top ten album list, and maybe introduce a couple of other surprises as well.
As usual your thoughts and comments are welcome.
P.S. No jazzy images of the albums this week, I plumb ran out of time. All albums can be purchased at BruceCockburn.com