An excellent primer to the wonderful world of Cockburn – an essential release.
When a “career spanning retrospective” is announced closer inspection often finds it to be that artist’s time with a particular record company so experiencing the true evolution of their work over the decades is hard. With Bruce Cockburn’s new best-of set it truly spans his work from 1970 right up to ‘Bone On Bone’ in 2017.
Picking thirty songs from 34 studio albums must have been a task, and with the breadth of styles and the speed with which his writing and performing matured in the first half of the 70s there must have been many lists and a lot of crossing out. Mostly chronological, the one misstep in programming was putting the 1987 live version of ‘Mama Just Wants To Barrelhouse All Night Long’ in place of the 1970s studio track. While it’s a great version the more recent production jars against the material actually recorded in 1974. It would have been better placed in with its 80’s peers.
By 1976 and ‘Silver Wheels’ a Flugelhorn part influenced by Hugh Masekela or Fredie Hubbard signals the onset of bigger arrangements, but no change in the quality of the material. Selecting individual songs to highlight is difficult as favourites shift with every listen. ‘Going To The Country,’ ‘Wondering Where The Lions Are’ and ‘Last Night of the World’ are good places to start though. The booklet gives a run down of the performers on each song, and a brief sentence from Cockburn to illuminate the title and subject. The slightly unfortunate cover makes him look for all the world like Victor Meldrew though, and surely there was a better title to be found?
AUK reviewed a set of reissues by Reg Meuross back the beginning of the year and in many ways he and Cockburn are similar in following social and political commentary, and in Cockburn’s case a Christian conviction, through the shifts in musical styles. They are also well known and respected in their own parts of the jungle but have been less recognised than they should have been by the wider musical world. At least the Canadian artist wins JUNO awards, has Hall of Fame inductions, honorary Doctorates, and the recognition of being an Officer of The Order of Canada. Perhaps Britain could learn a thing or two there.
One of the purposes of a set like this is to tease the listener with the riches to be found elsewhere in an artist’s back catalogue. For Cockburn this has worked extremely well as wanting to hear how ‘Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long’ was interpreted in 1974 and what was on the albums passed over for inclusion has sent me off for several purchases. His memoir ‘Rumours of Glory’ is also well worth a read to understand the source of his lyrics. 2021 has been a great year for new music but also for the quality of thought that has gone into compiling retrospectives, and this is one of the best.