7 June 2003, by Wilfred Langmaid -
Bruce Cockburn's You've Never Seen Everything is a profound work of genius. Standing ably beside anything he had produced in a 30 year- plus career, it sees him unleash every one of his many gifts as a songsmith and sage, all the while seamlessly incorporating new wrinkles into his sound.
The album, his 27th, is in stores Tuesday. [10 June 2003]
The obvious first thing that many will derive from this album is a political tone reminiscent of his mid-80s trilogy of albums The Trouble With Normal, Stealing Fire, and World Of Wonders. In short, the targets are warmongering and basic human greed. The album is light years removed from, say, the love songs of 1994's Dart To The Heart.
While that fact is true, You've Never Seen Everything balances the righteous indignation that marked those works with a more loving tone. In that sense, You've Never Seen Everything is a neat move from the introspective 1996 album The Charity Of Night. The observations are balanced by self-examination, and the overall message by Cockburn at age 57 is one of hope.
Still, the strident voice for human justice and the affirmation of the basic dignity of all people marks key tracks. Using the spoken word stanza / sung chorus technique that he began employing in the early 80s, a song like All Our Dark Tomorrows fuses world rhythms with his textbook minor chord-based mid-tempo groove while targeting greed. Always a devastating wordsmith, he speaks with boldness and acuity.
In Trickle Down, the target is again greed, but this time the catalyst for Cockburn's indignation is last summer's G-8 conference held in Alberta, where 8 world leaders concocted what Cockburn calls "bank vault utopia padded for the few". The musical stretches made, however, are exciting. Here, Cockburn collaborates with avant-garde jazz pianist Andy Milne, and he flies both on his guitar and on the rapped vitriole of his stanzas - sort of a modern- day Subterranean Homesick Blues done up by a crack jazz band. Meanwhile, the personal chronicle Tried And Tested which opens the album features stanzas that are more a straight rap, balanced by the sung part of the three-word-mantra chorus which is the song title.
Travel to other lands was the spark behind Cockburn's first political gems. The newest song in this idiom is the chilling Postcards From Cambodia. His acute eye, quick mind, and bold voice make the horror of the killing fields come alive.
A wider spectrum of images bridging both the years and the continents marks the title track. Canadian references include a bizarre murder/suicide in Toronto and a one-line observation in an early stanza "and the Mounties are strip-searching schoolgirls because they can". All of the images in each stanza conclude with the veteran observer reminding a jaded world "you've never seen everything".
All of the horror, all of the observation, and all of the rage on such pieces becomes tolerable, and the songs ultimately uplifting, because of the hope that under-girds these songs unlike earlier Cockburn work in this vein. It tends to appear in the words of the sung choruses that partner the spoken word narratives. To wit, the horror of Cambodia that Cockburn chronicles leads him to ultimately conclude:
"This is too big for anger
It's too big for blame
We stumble through history so humanly lame
So I bow down my head
Say a prayer for us all
That we don't fear the spirit when it comes to call."
Similarly, the same Cockburn finishes his lists of the lunacies of our modern age and rants against greed and globalization in the title track by saying "Here I sit, staring at my own shadow, feeling my blood move, trying not to have a drink, trying to find somewhere to put the rage I'm carrying", only to then realize a greater power in the late sung chorus:
"Bad pressure coming down
Tears - what we really traffic in
Ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around."
Realistically, these sorts of songs are more for the seasoned Cockburn fan, but that fan base could well grow, especially stateside, with concurrent distribution of this album by True North Records charter member Cockburn on the fellow Universal label Rounder Records. A song like
However, the album's shining star of a hit - one that would be a multi-format super-hit in a just and proper world - is Put It In Your Heart. Cut from the tapestry of mid-tempo, grooving pop with hooks and bite that delivered would-be hits Lovers In A Dangerous Time in 1984 and A Dream Like Mine in 1991, it is Cockburn's response to the horror of September 11, 2001. In a 2002 concert, he introduced the piece by saying "This particular song was triggered not so much by the event itself, which was horrible but not that surprising if you'd spent time in the rest of the world, but by the aftermath of it." In the song, he describes such acts of horror as "surely ... expressions of a soul that's turned its back on love". He reminds the listener and, ultimately, himself of the fact that we are all in this together:
"Heaven's perfect alchemy
Put me with you and you with me
Come on, put it in your heart."
While seeing this as a hit all over the radio waves might be a stretch, if Cockburn can have hope, so can I.