Album Review: Bruce Cockburn – Small Source of Comfort

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Canadian born singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn left his political mark in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s with his blatant left wing views and songs about oppressive governments, fascism, the absurdity of war and the hardheartedness of mankind. His musical style has ranged from acoustic folk to pop to radio-friendly rock. He was the artist that proclaimed, “If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die,” while only years later having fellow Canadians Barenaked Ladies garner a hit with his “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”

While extremely popular in Canada, his only really big U.S. hit came in 1979 with “Wondering Where The Lions Are.” Some 30-odd albums later, Cockburn has returned with a hodgepodge of instrumental songs and folk/rock tunes on his Small Source Of Comfort album.

Nowadays, most of Bruce’s anger has dissipated, and he seems to have traded his angst for some suave finger picking and dry humor. His style remains guitar oriented—mainly acoustic—and his music maintains much of the same sound it harboured throughout his career. His voice hasn’t changed at all, and he still has a knack for writing intelligent lyrics and sharp wordplay. But on this album, there’s not really much to hang your hat on. The songs are mired by slow, creeping acoustic backgrounds, a few sounding like lullabies lacking in any sort of panache or flair.

The better parts of this album are the instrumentals, such as “Bohemian 3 Step” and “Comets of Kandahar,” which contain more fluctuation and resonance than the lyrical tunes. The best non-instrumental is a song called “Call Me Rose,” about the reincarnation of Richard Nixon as a woman. Sleepers like “Called Me Back,” “Driving Away” and “Each One Lost” are lifeless, listless, and putter along without even the slightest amount of musical vitality.

Sure, they’re meant to be slow and ballad-like, but without much of a musical pulse or significant flow for even this style, Cockburn fails to garner the kind of interest he used to from this style (listen to “Rumours Of Glory,” “Peggy’s Kitchen Wall,” or “Waiting For A Miracle”). These past songs from his glory days, although truly not meant to be rockers, contain passion and enthusiasm that can be distinguished as the songs play out.

It’s difficult to find these same emotions in the bulk of the songs on Small Source Of Comfort. Even if he was trying to tone it down a bit, Cockburn sounds a little too mellow, a little too sedated, and a little too genial throughout the drift of these tracks. Missing is the bite—the subtle spiciness that used to envelope even his mildest of folk ditties and acoustic flourishes.

Some minimal flashes of elegant string work rise to the surface intermittently in a few of the instrumentals and on one or two of the lyrical tracks, but it’s just not enough to rescue the album from unintentional banality.

Personally, Bruce Cockburn has always been one of my favorite artists. As a fellow Canadian, I appreciated his vigour, his social commentary and his political vitality. He sang in a straightforward manner with no holds barred, and pulled no punches. His slower material had a few hooks and a lot of wit, incisiveness, and keenness. This time around though, Mr. Cockburn’s attempt at a relaxing, tranquil acoustic album falls short of the mark for even this type of environment.

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