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Surprising Even Still
A Review of Bruce Cockburn's Bone on Bone
Josh Langhoff

Near the end of Bruce Cockburn’s thirty-third album, Bone on Bone, the singer-songwriter and his band find themselves in a moment of musical transcendence. To end “False River,” one of the loveliest songs ever written about the environmental devastation wreaked by the oil industry, Cockburn plays a three-minute acoustic guitar solo while his band jams on a single chord. Snare drum and upright bass punch out a staccato rhythm, splashes of accordion and cymbal thicken the texture, and Cockburn’s restless fingers turn over his strings, uncovering idea after idea. Together they inhabit a place where luxurious comfort and roving exploration feed off one another.

CockburnMusicians reach such places through indirection and large resources of faith. If they practice hard enough; if the band plays enough gigs to gel as a unit; if the players drink (or don’t drink) various substances before they play—maybe, just maybe, transcendence awaits. Both musicians and listeners know the feeling of finding a performance gloriously “in the pocket.” It’s notoriously hard to predict. Sometimes a gig seems to be going in a tedious, workmanlike direction until, all of a sudden, the musicians look up from their instruments and realize transcendence has arrived, and they have no idea how it got there.

If this aspect of music seems to have clear parallels to our spiritual practices,it should. In the jazz world, John Coltrane’s albums A Love Supreme and Meditationsexplicitly linked group improvisation with divine revelation; last year saw the release of The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, who played piano with her husband before his death, then went on to record devotional jams with her Los Angeles ashram. Religious rock typically shies away from these ecstatic musical connections; but then, Cockburn (pronounced “Coburn”) has never been a typical Christian rocker. After releasing several albums of mainstream, if little-heard, folk fingerpicking on Canadian label True North, Cockburn began writing songs that reflected his evolving Christian faith. The first of these was 1974’s hymnlike “All the Diamonds in the World.” In terms of Christian rock, it was miles away from Keith Green’s prophetic praise music or Larry Norman’s worldly metaphors and proselytizing. As you’d expect from a poetry aficionado like Cockburn, the songwriter decided to forego preaching for evoking an opulent vision of divine revelation:

Like a pearl in sea of liquid jade
His ship comes shining
Like a crystal swan in a sky of suns
His ship comes shining.

In fact, Cockburn’s faith was rooted in a revelation he’d experienced in 1969, on his wedding day. He later explained it to Sojourners magazine:

As we were exchanging rings, I suddenly became aware that there was another presence that was not visible but was as palpable as if it were visible, standing in front of us at the altar. It wasn’t in any way shocking or threatening or even overwhelming, it was just that there was definitely somebody there, and I could only assume it was Jesus because we were in a Christian church.

What followed was a lifetime spent working out the demands of that revelation. First Cockburn committed to intentionally following Christ, reflected in his decision to record songs of Christian mysticism. Later he would devote his work to social causes, including environmental activism and traveling among poor revolutionaries in the Global South. These two subjects run like twin arteries through Cockburn’s immense body of work. His songs are full of divine encounters; next to his impressively high revelations-per-album quotient, other Christian artists sound like jaded realists. At the same time, Cockburn evinces a deeper understanding of current events—especially the ways intractable power systems consign millions of people to poverty and desperation—than all but the most politically engaged rappers and punk rockers. His biggest U.S. hit, “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” was inspired by a vision that came to him in a dream; it recounted “thinking about eternity” and being caught up in “some kind of ecstasy.” His second biggest, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” was about how much he wanted to kill Guatemala’s right-wing death squads.

The prevailing stream throughout Bone on Bone is epiphany—but these are the epiphanies of a septuagenarian wryly looking back at his life and marveling at how much he’s moved around. Nearly half the songs mention journeys, including “States I’m In,” a chugging minor-key travelogue about life’s vagaries, and “40 Years in the Wilderness,” a gentle folk ballad in which the angels urge Cockburn to “cover some ground before everything comes undone.” Cockburn’s journeys even transcend language. “Encore je cours/ Je cours toujours,” he sings in “Mon Chemin”—“Still I’m running/ Always running.” The album ends with two footloose spirituals: Cockburn’s original “Jesus Train,” in which he rides the title train to the City of God, and a cover of the Rev. Gary Davis’s “Twelve Gates to the City,” in which he arrives.

Cockburn’s unusual small band propels these songs. The keyboards, Chapman sticks, and even most of the guitar delay from his ’80s and ’90s work have long since disappeared. In their place is a dry, crisp ensemble of mostly acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, produced by Cockburn’s longtime second guitarist, Colin Linden. On this album, they’re augmented by accordion, cornet, and a group of singers from Cockburn’s San Francisco church. (Faithful readers will note the cornetist is jazzman Ron Miles, last seen in the Lent 2018 Cresset playing on Matt Wilson’s album Honey and Salt.) The musicians dig into their grooves and make the songs, with a few exceptions, skip right along. Over his career, Cockburn has also recorded dozens of virtuosic instrumentals, and the title song is just the man and his acoustic, reeling off ominous modal melodies over a humming E string.  He’s cited several influences on his playing: “a combination of Mississippi John Hurt and futile attempts at playing jazz,” he once said, plus Indian and Arabic music, “where they don’t care about chords at all. I really related to the hypnotic quality of droning sounds, and the geometric shapes you can build by placing melodic movement on top of a droning bass part” (Eyre).

At least one song suggests Cockburn is running low on epiphanies. The midtempo “Looking and Waiting,” a song about wanting a revelation but not getting one, is a drag; it telegraphs its narrator’s dissatisfaction too accurately. Generally, though, Cockburn and his band still sound capable of surprising themselves, especially on two glorious character studies. The bluesy “Café Society” works as a parody of the songwriter’s activism, depicting him and a group of friends meeting outside a Peet’s Coffee, grumbling about “the caliphate of perverts and the flight of refugees/ the growing ranks of homeless and the disappearing bees.” Also great is “3 Al Purdy’s,” narrated by an imaginary homeless man, ranting on the street about the poet Al Purdy and trying to unload volumes of Purdy’s poetry for cash. The song opens and closes with lengthy recitations from the poet’s work. When people refer to rock lyrics as poetry, “3 Al Purdy’s” isn’t usually what they mean—but maybe they should.

Because his lyrics are so metaphorically rich and his social analyses so smart, it’s tempting to want more from Cockburn than what he offers—to wish he’d draw, say, an explicit and systematic link between his lyrical epiphanies and the causes he champions. But unlike many Christian songwriters, he doesn’t see dogma and evangelism as part of his job. “My responsibility as a Christian is to do some good in the world. My responsibility as an artist is to do good art,” he told Sojourners. Looking back over the past forty-odd years of Cockburn’s work, as he so frequently does during Bone on Bone, creates a mini-revelation of its own. Moments of transcendence never solve everything, but they help keep us going; and when we look up from our work, we may be surprised at where the Spirit has led us, without understanding exactly how or where we’ve arrived.

 

Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area. He is also the founder of NorteñoBlog, a mostly English-language website devoted to regional Mexican music.

 

Works Cited

Eyre, Banning. “Bruce Cockburn: The Troubadour Effect.” Guitar Player Sep. 1998: 35, 38.

Kemper, Vicki. “Singer In a Dangerous Time: A Canadian Poet’s Journey in Faith and Politics.” Sojourners January 1988. https://sojo.net/magazine/january-1988/singer-dangerous-time-canadian-poets-journey-faith-and-politics

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