16 October 1999, by Wilfred Langmaid - Cockburn Shares His Gifts
In baseball, they talk about five-tool players-players who can run with speed, throw the ball with strength and accuracy, hit for a high batting average and hit with power. They are rare.
Within music, one could coin the term four-tool player. Such a person would be as rare as their baseball counterpart. They would play a lead instrument with uncommon skill and virtuosity, write engaging and musically involved melodies, pen lyrics with a poet's grace, and sing those lyrics with distinctive charm.
Such a person is Bruce Cockburn. The Canadian legend's achievements have been chronicled for years, and much ink has been spilled on his behalf in this very column through the years. However, Cockburn's 30-year career has yielded much less commercial success than has been his due. Indeed, he has often called hits "occasional accidents."
He has had only one bona-fide hit in the United States- Wondering Where the Lions Are, nearly 20 years ago-and as much as one hates to admit it, the U.S. market drives the rock music industry.
Cockburn's time, however, may be coming at age 54. His 25th album, Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, is selling well, buoyed by the quick rise up the charts of the first single, Last Night of the World. It achieved No. 1 most added status stateside in the adult album alternative category. This is industry parlance for a major hit. Canadian success is occurring in all formats.
As an album, Cockburn's latest does not fit into the classic status of its immediate predecessor, the exquisite The Charity of Night, but it is no slouch either. Again co-produced by Canada's Colin Linden, Cockburn's latest is a less sombre work than some of his discography, and the feel is sometimes languid rather than intense.
That can be a good thing, as the casual listener may find this a less exhausting and demanding listen than is the case with some of his past work. The instrumentals are intricate but tuneful, acoustic arrangements predominate, and there is even a cover of Blueberry Hill, for heaven's sake!
Still, Cockburn challenges. There is the clear political commentary with Canadian references in the folk/funk hybrid, Let the Bad Air Out, for instance. Even the would-be love song, Last Night of the World, has as the reference point his experience of finding "hope among the hopeless" in Central America and his admission, "That was the straw that broke me open."
There are even other potential hits in the quasi love-song motif, but Cockburn clothes them as deeper, more probing looks at relationships. Examples include Look How Far and Isn't That What Friends Are For.
Another hit in a just world is the album-opening track When You Give It Away.