Style: intricate, finger-picked folk, jazz, and blues; compare to John Fahey, Phil Keaggy
Top tracks: "Call Me Rose," "The Iris of the World," "Comets of Kandahar"
Bruce Cockburn has always been a consummate musician and an indifferent theologian. On Small Source of Comfort, his 31st album, he delivers more of the same dazzling musical invention, and slightly less than usual in the way of spiritual consolation.
Cockburn's subject matter here—love (both human and divine), the uses and abuses of power, the stark beauty of the natural world—will sound familiar to longtime fans. He's a master of detailed narrative and startlingly imaginative imagery, and he mines some rich territory on "Call Me Rose," which envisions Richard Nixon reincarnated as a poor single woman with two children, destined to work out his karma in the inner-city projects. "Maybe the memoir will sell," he deadpans, the first of several humorous salvos on the album. But his trademark mysticism (this is one man who refuses to be tied down by dogma) fails him on several occasions, resulting in the muddled poetry of "Boundless," and "Radiance" and the hackneyed writing of "Each One Lost." On the latter song, Cockburn recounts his trip to war-torn Afghanistan, where he saw the coffins of Canadian soldiers being unloaded from a plane. He has worked this territory before ("If I Had a Rocket Launcher"), but what should have been a harrowing, intensely personal moment turns into a sloppy, sentimental singalong, complete with "we're all in this together" chorus. Really, Bruce? That's all you've got?
The five deft instrumentals scattered liberally throughout the album almost make up for the disappointing lyrics. Long admired as a gifted, eclectic guitarist who effortlessly synthesizes folk, jazz, and blues, he gently unwinds a meditative folk solo on "Bohemian 3-Step" and duets with violinist Jenny Scheinman on the swinging jazz of "Comets of Kandahar," another song inspired by Afghanistan (specifically, the bright trails of American jets taking off in the pre-dawn darkness), but sounding like a long-lost track from the Hot Club de Paris.
Bruce Cockburn is too much of a musical maverick and restlessly creative spirit to remain in one spot very long, and Small Source of Comfort is far from a bad album. But it is a holding pattern, a fly-by over territory already well covered, and covered better in the past. Those looking for ever-evolving mystical nuances in the further adventures of Bruce Cockburn are likely to be disappointed. Those looking for another solid musical effort will find much to admire.
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