19 January 2002, by Wilfred Langmaid -
Greatest hits albums are a fancy way of treading water for many artists. This is particularly the case in circumstances like these where material is duplicated from an earlier greatest hits package. When that artist has admitted a writing block of sorts in the last year or so, the cynicism may well rise in the minds of many.
However, consider the evidence to the contrary. The album is really an attempt by the artist and his new label in the United States (Rounder Records) to put the best of his most accessible past 2 decades of work in one package.
And, consider the most important evidence. The artist in question is Bruce Cockburn. This Canadian marvel has done it his own way for over 30 years, and he combines the four key skills of a great musician – powerful lyrics, a distinctive voice, tuneful melody- writing craft, and true virtuosity on his instrument – like few others.
The beginning of this collection at 1979 – a decade after his career began – is no coincidence. Cockburn largely eschewed the US market for most of the 70s. While he calls his single hits "occasional accidents" in many interviews, it was the surprise move of Wondering Where The Lions Are up the charts that made him a big name worldwide. This collection moves from that 1979 composition through the next 23 years.
That means lots of potential new discoveries for those who do not know the musical canon of this 56-year old legend, and many fond memories for those who know his craft and remember the sinewy sound of Cockburn and his band during their many trips to Fredericton in the 80s. To today’s ears, songs like The Coldest Night Of The Year are as close to throwaway pop as Cockburn gets, and the feel is a bit dated. However, even a song like this far eclipses virtually anything that was on the radio competing with it at the time, and it contains more imagery and life in the single line "when two lovers really love there's nothing there / but this suddenly compact universe of skin and breath and hair" than one found in the combined lyrics of the entire top 40 of the day.
As well, the 80s saw Cockburn move into strident political commentary, and songs like The Trouble With Normal, Call It Democracy, If A Tree Falls, and the classic If I Had A Rocket Launcher are sadly still relevant today. As such, they retain all of their power and might.
Politics, self-examination, and the spiritual quest continued to combine and evolve for Cockburn in the 90s, and this collection includes such autobiographical gems as A Dream Like Mine and Pacing The Cage.
Cockburn last released a greatest hits collection in 1986, and he augmented that collection with the then-new track Waiting For A Miracle, which is also included here. Jerry Garcia covered it for years; what higher praise can one give?
This new collection is also augmented by new material. The closing track Anything, Anytime, Anywhere was written in 1992. Featuring backing vocals by The Fairfield Four, this unabashed love song is similar in feel to Cockburn’s cover of Blueberry Hill from his 1999 studio album Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuctu.
The more significant new composition is the album opener My Beat. It is a wonderful combination of the best of 90s Cockburn in its driving mid-tempo travelogue and his 80s sound which highlighted violin virtuoso Hugh Marsh, who makes a welcome return here. Of even more significance is the fact that the song was written last summer in Cockburn’s new home base of Montreal, and the travelogue has as much lyrical resonance and acuity as the best of his work from any era. (Born in Ottawa, Cockburn had lived in Toronto since the late 1970s.)
In other words, the writers’ block, such as it was, is over. Let the naysayers call this collection treading water. For me, Bruce Cockburn continues to artistically walk upon it, and there is every indication now that the floodgates of creativity and growth are now about to open wide. Do not be surprised if this album set to introduce new listeners to his sound is followed in due course with another original masterpiece.