14 September 1999 -- Rykodisc today released the highly anticipated "Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu", the 25th album by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn.
Cockburn's last album, "The Charity Of Night" (followed by the "You Pay Your Money..." live EP from the "Charity" Tour) was hailed as one of Cockburn's strongest albums for years. "Breakfast..." decisively continues this pattern.
"The awe-filled landscape contextualized on his milestone 25th album... is a far cry from the worlds of loss and desolation visited on albums past," wrote Billboard magazine on 14 August, describing the new album as "more personable than the material Cockburn is better-known-for-and it's more observational about emotional relationships than about the world at large."
After Cockburn's last studio album, "The Charity Of Night", was released, Cockburn commented on this phenomenon. "For me, what is essential is to write about the human experience as I can," said Cockburn. "That includes political songs, but it doesn't preclude love songs, and songs about sex, and whatever else might come up."
Other musicians on the album
Two female vocalists gave guest appearances on the album. Country singer Lucinda Williams contributed harmony to 'When You Give It Away", "Isn't That What Friends Are For", "Look How Far", and "Use Me While You Can", while Margo Timmins, from Cowboy Junkies fame, similarly contributed harmonies on "Mango" and a duet vocal on "Blueberry Hill".
Originally, fellow Rykodisc artist Toumani Diabate was announced to be playing kora (a 21-stringed African harp) on the album, but schedule problems made this impossible leaving Daniel Janke to play kora on three of the album's songs -- "Mango", "Let The Bad Air Out", and "Use Me While You Can".
""Once I had the idea of having the kora as a sound on the album," said Cockburn, "I found myself steering the music in that way, where the song suited that. The kind of finger picking you hear in 'Mango' and typical style of kora playing were made for each other."
Well-known pianist, Richard Bell, who has played with both The Band and Janis Joplin, played organ on "When You Give It Away", "Last Night Of The World", "Blueberry Hill", and "Use Me While You Can"
Drummer Ben Riley and guitarist Colin Linden, who have both played extensively with Bruce Cockburn both appeared on this album, Linden co-producing the album with him and playing electric guitar on "Last Night Of The World".
Percussionist Rick Lazar joined Riley to contribute an Arabic percussive sound to almost all of the songs on the album with the exception of "Blueberry Hill" and "Use Me While You Can".
Guitar Player magazine, in its September 1999 issue, asserted that the new album "continues a tradition of eclecticism that spans country blues, folk, punk, and the mysticism of Asian, Indian, and West African music."
"What New Orleans and Timbuktu represent is a kind of polarity," commented John Whynot, who recorded and mixed the album, "From wet to dry, from North America to the very exotic, from African/Arabic sensibility and culture to what we have here. The two cities are polls apart, but still have things in common, like soul and heat."
Song by song review
- When You Give It Away - A funky rock and roll song reminiscent in pace and sound to much of the material from the "Dart To The Heart" album, "When You Give It Away" is also lyrically powerful.
- The song begins with a sense of alienation as the result of both the harshness of reality ("Slid out of my dreams like a baby out of the nurse's hands / Onto the hard floor of day") and the almost existential absurdness of much of collective human communication ("Down in Kaldi's café the newspaper headlines promised new revelations / Concerning Prince Charles' Amex account"). Next to this harshness and absurdity is juxtaposed a decision to react positively ("I've got this thing in my heart / I must give you today / It only lives when you / Give it away").
- Interestingly, some of the song's lyrics ("Languid mandalla of the ceiling fan / Teases the air like a slow stroking hand") first appeared in an unreleased Cockburn live track "Dance With You", from around 14 years ago. "When You Give It Away" includes possibly the first lyrical reference to both O.J. Simpson and Prince Charles.
- Mango - Reminiscent of the often explicitly sexual poetry found in "Song of Songs/Solomon" from the Bible, Cockburn has suggested this inspiration in a comment that "lyrically, ['Mango' is a] kind of a hymn to female sexuality."
- Vocally, the song reminded me somewhat of J.J. Cale. Slide bass by George Koller gives the song an earthy, jazzy, sensual feel. Kora by Janke evokes the pouring of waterfalls and the lush, exotic hint of paradise. Margo Timmins' ethereal lyrics provide the required mist and sexuality for this romp in Eden.
- Last Night Of The World - The Y2K song to watch! :-) If you've ever heard Cockburn play a solo version of "Night Train" -- a song that would have been aptly titled even if it had been an instrumental -- you won't be disappointed by this song's strong rhythmical finger-picked guitar.
- Cockburn's acoustic and Colin Linden's electric guitars canter along side-by-side like two horses, Linden kicking in after a few solo bars by Cockburn. This is definitely a song recommended for glider pilots, offering a clean, free, and buoyant sound. "If this were the last night of the world / What would I do? / What would I do that was different? / Unless it was champagne with you".
- Isn't That What Friends Are For? - This spoken song is a space-evoking, lyric-scape that opens on a misty forest and "the Great Lake rolling on forever to the narrow gray beach", with percussionist Rick Lazar populating the tree tops and ferns with an understated but veritable zoo of bird, animal and insect life.
- I've got to say I'm no fan of country music, but Lucinda Williams contributes an unforgettable and world-weary vocal for the song's bittersweet but powerful refrain, "Isn't that what friends are for?" that made me want to dig around for my cowboy boots and hat, and take the next train to Nashville.
- The "you" in the song refers to a friend of Cockburn's, Jonatha Brooks. Cockburn told the story behind the song in an August radio 1999 interview: "Jonatha and I had been going through similar things at a distance from each other (a couple of years ago now), sort of upheavals in our respective lives and comparing notes over the phone for a while and we finally actually got a chance, after many months [to meet]... While I was waiting for her to show up at the designated rendezvous point, I ended up writing that song based on our phone conversations and a few other bits and pieces from my notebook."
- Down To The Delta - Described by Guitar Player magazine as a "rocking McCoy Tyner-inspired jam", "Down To The Delta" is very reminiscent of both the sound and melody of "Tibetan Side of Town" and the excellent instrumentals that Cockburn contributed to "The Charity Of Night". When it was reported earlier this year that Bruce Cockburn was asking for audience suggestions at gigs for a title for this song, I'd have been tempted to suggest something Central Asian for this one, as oriental melodies keep rising unexpectedly out of the tune.
- "This instrumental is kind of a free for all," Cockburn has said, "especially on the drum and percussion end of it. It's basically an improvised jazz piece with a melody at the beginning and end. If we had more players, we could have stretched it out to a whole side of an album, that is if we still had sides."
- The violin sound on the song (that kicks in 3 minutes, 8 seconds into the track) is not listed as a separate instrument in the track credits because it isn't coming from a violin. It is actually bassist George Koller playing a double bass. Can't get enough of these instrumentals.
- The Embers Of Eden - The darkest song on the album, "The Embers Of Eden" is nonetheless lyrically and musically consistent in itself, describing a sexual nightmare that draws on imagery from the Fall of Man. Some people might find this a little tough to listen to at first.
- Blueberry Hill - Considering the uneasy lyrical content of the previous song, the deliberate placement of this song on the album after "Embers" curiously evoked for me an image of the two producers of the album chuckling like Beavis and Butthead at the irony. Indeed, Cockburn has hinted that this was exactly the case, commenting that the song is "a romantic reminiscence, sort of the other side of the 'Embers Of Eden' coin."
- A very unique rendering of this classic song from the era of jukeboxes stuffed with vinyl 45s and greasy-haired adolescents trying to find other adolescents to stuff bits of themselves into. To give you an idea of exactly how unique this cover version is, imagine the lead guitar from the Doors' "The End" suddenly going into a harmonised, crooning rendition of "I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill". A musical Twin Peaks offering, at least at the beginning. Margo Timmins' duet with Cockburn, and Cockburn's heavily distorted guitar throughout the song, makes this a very fresh and suitably subversive rendition of an instantly recognisable tune.
- Let The Bad Air Out - A song that will be familliar to anyone who attended Cockburn's concerts five years or so ago. The music has been given a totally new reworking, with two distinct sections that keep cycling.
- "I found music that I liked which fit the context of the new album," Cockburn has said, "As I was writing it, the wordless part of the melody seemed to cry out for the addition of a horn section of trombone and harmonica, and that became the sound wherever horns were appropriate."
- The lyrics are delivered in a Dylanesque "Suburban Homesick Blues" kind of way, and are a humourous poke at the general corruption and shenanigans of government. The use of intentional and controlled dischord and exaggerated bass voices reminded me a lot of the energy of the Violent Femmes, and gives the song a lot of life.
- Look How Far - The spoken verse beginning to this song tells us that Cockburn is in autobiographical documentary mode. In an August 1999 radio appearance, Cockburn talked about the origins of this song:
"One of the characteristics of the sort social side of what I do is this constant kind of, in a way, frustration of meeting people and bouncing off them and going away feeling like you've seen somebody that you've really wanted to see, but haven't had a chance to find out really anymore than the surface of how they are doing. And I had come away from one of those encounters with Ani in Toronto. She was playing in Toronto when I was leaving town the same day to go do something else and so I got to catch a little of her before the soundcheck and then I took off. And that's what sort of set this song in motion, it could apply to her, it could apply to any number of people who would find themselves, or that I would find in the same way."
- Notably, the music during the verses evokes Ani DiFranco's choppy three-chord song foundations, something that gave the song an extra poignancy for me.
- Deep Lake - For Cockburn fans who enjoyed the "In The Falling Dark"-era instrumentals, "Deep Lake" is very much a hearkening back. The restful but majestic progress of the song brings to life the feelings of... well... a deep lake with some gigantic and awe-inspiring although, thankfully, calm creatures swimming around in its depths.
- Described by Guitar Player magazine as "meditative", the magazine noted that both this song and the other instrumental on the album, "Down To The Delta "showcase Cockburn's trademark finger-style sound--a rich amalgam of selling bass drones, oblique harmonies, and darting, rhythmic melodies."
- Use Me While You Can - The music evokes the desert in the way that only a resonator guitar and a well-spent youth spent watching Westerns can. Opening with a cascading kora melody, joined soon after by Cockburn's resonator guitar in an extended introduction, "Use Me While You Can" is a beautiful anthem to the meeting in our lives of the personal and the political, against the backdrop of a ancient world stage swept by the "dust of fallen empires" that foretells our own passing. The closing verse of the album brings all these thoughts together in a cinematic tapestry of imagery:
"I've had breakfast in New Orleans, dinner in Timbuktu / I've lived as a stranger in my own house too / Dark hand waves in lamplight / Cowrie patterns change / And nothing will be the same again / Bullet in a sandstorm / Looking for a place to land / Bullet in a sandstorm / Full heart beats an empty one / In the deck they dealt to man / Use me while you can."
- "It's about the passage of time and the inevitability of that," Cockburn has said of this song, "and about the need to seize the moment. All the images are about the transitory nature of things. In that part of the Sahara you really have the sense that when you pick up a handful of sand, that it really is the 'dust of fallen empires,' and of cultures that came and went. There were people living there when it was grassland. An ancient presence is there, and yet it can only be felt because there's no sign of it now, no living vestige of it, other than what's left of Timbuktu. Which relates to what our lives are all about. We're here, then we're gone. So if you're going to get anything out of me, get it now."
- As this theme suggests, there is no big crescendo finish to this album. It just fades away abruptly - leaving you thinking....
Although, like all of Cockburn's material, the album has a lot of immediate appeal, it will also grow on you as the complexity of the lyrics and music unwind over time. In other words, you aren't going to like everything instantly, but on the flip side, you certainly aren't going to let dust gather on this album any time soon either. However much you like the album on first listen, it'll still sneak up on you some. And don't worry, if you liked "The Charity Of Night", you'll also like "Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu".
The 'Bruce Cockburn on Bruce Cockburn' Project
14 September 1999
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