Bruce Cockburn, “Speechless”

[Rounder/True North Records 11661]
Tide Pool Meditations

May, 2006


Spring has arrived here in the Northeast, and today, I am fortunate to discover tide pools on my walk here at Halibut Point in Gloucester, MA. These ephemeral pools teem with life shortly before the cold spring tide collapses back in upon their tiny worlds. Their surfaces are green and golden with algae and all varieties of kelp. Looking closer, tiny brine shrimp scatter below the surface, with tiny water nymphs dancing to and fro. Sunlight reveals baby crabs clinging to kelp, while hermit crabs scavenger the rocky bottom and defend their minutiae of territory. Multitudes of barnacles extend their feathery tongues to catch detritus floating by, awaiting the incoming tide and the wash of a brand new day.

Bruce Cockburn’s instrumentals are like those spring tide pools: always new sonic worlds to explore below the surface of the beautiful melodies he weaves. Cockburn’s melodies are always beautiful, some bitter sweet, some brutal with gale force chord changes, but always hitting at the heart. His music has always aimed at deeper involvement by the listener. In his vocal recordings, his magnificent poetry delves into life, love and hard scrabble political questions and choices. Here, in his newest collection of instrumentals culled from both past recordings and new ones, Cockburn offers a deeply moving instrumental portrait which strikes at the heart of human experience and seems to ponder Paul Gauguin’s famous painting title: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Cockburn pulls this worldly meditation off brilliantly, with just his guitars to guide us. The emotions from those guitars stretch from horizon to horizon on this wide musical journey. There is the achingly beautiful lament of “When It’s Gone, It’s Gone,” as Cockburn tangles us in a cyclical melody of bittersweet longing. Cockburn is accompanied here by deep, accentuated lines from Booker Jones on organ and Mark O’Connor on a wistful, delicate mandolin. The depth of the eerie sound of the Dilruba, (an Indian classical instrument similar to a sitar) played by George Koller accompanies Cockburn’s gorgeous strums and deep, deliberate silences on the meditative “Deep Lake.” This leads into, "The End of All Rivers,” another cyclical, reverberant piece swirling with guitar, Navajo flute and baritone guitar, all rising and falling back on itself like a wave crashing forth. “Water Into Wine” is another stunner: first we are swept into a kaleidoscope of fragile picks and strums on Cockburn’s acoustic guitar, which then leads through a path to an expansive melody where we can stay and linger to enjoy Cockburn’s beauty of song and meditate on the complexity of his twists and turns.

Juxtaposed to this meditative, complex material are the simple, absolutely stunning phrases of “Foxglove” or “Train In The Rain,” whose simple, pristine melodies will remain in your head all day. Cockburn’s solo acoustic work here is never flashy, just plain brilliant in its simplicity of backyard strumming and sun-drenched improv. Simple on the surface but brilliant in detail beneath, are other acoustic mediations that speak to me of nature and human frailty, like that in “Salt, Sun and Time,” or “Islands In A Black Sky,” with Cockburn’s swirling notes and stately silences. Yet what is the human condition without humor? Here, Cockburn begins the slow churning “King Kong Goes To Tallahassee” with some vocal stomps of his own and then proceeds to nail perfectly this bluesy ballad to the Big Guy. Even the crisp definition of Cockburn’s solo acoustic guitar on “Sunrise On The Mississippi” is embedded with comical light touches of an early morning getting off just right.

The sonics of this masterpiece are absolutely a joy to behold. When depth of feeling and meditation calls forth, the soundstage is wide and deep, with bass notes rounded and silences deep and alive with ambient details. Crisp acoustic strumming is miked right up front so that every nuance is clear and articulate, with differences in strings and bodies of guitars to be explored by the listener. Just take a listen to the dialogue between Cockburn and Gary Burton on “Mistress of the Storms.” If your system is up to the task, Burton’s vibes shimmer and cast a long, natural decay on each of his strokes, while Cockburn counters with quick, lightning phrases. Image dimensionality and the ability to almost walk between these two players on the stage is uncannily lifelike.

The tides coming in – got to go - but I leave a little richer for contemplating these spring tide pools and Bruce Cockburn’s newest musical gem.

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Nelson Brill