Bruce Cockburn: O Sun O Moon [Album Review]

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Bruce Cockburn
O Sun O Moon
True North Records [2023]

It’s been 6 years, since Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn (pronounced Coe-burn) released an album with voice and lyrics, Bone On Bone, and 4 years since he’d released an album of acoustic guitar instrumentals, Crowing Ignites. “Time takes its toll,” he sings on the opening track of his new release, but as the music throbs with a smart fun rock & roll rhythm and the resonator guitar moans, he insists “But in my soul/I’m on a roll.” Depending on who’s counting, Cockburn has released 28 studio albums, and another dozen more if you count all the live concert recordings and compilations, so sending “O Sun O Moon” out into the world just weeks before his 78th birthday is the fruit of a still fertile and reflective, creative mind.

Over the decades, fans have followed from his early folky, nature songs, expressing a youthful, nascent Christian spirituality on albums like Salt, Sun and Time, and Further Adventures Of, his airplay breakthrough stateside with “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” and his majestic acoustic guitar playing on Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws. The 80’s started with his classic album, Humans, reeling from the pain of his divorce, which opened up musical and political explorations, culminating in “(If I Had a) Rocket Launcher” on Stealing Fire, and ecological activism on Big Circumstance, with expressions of world music, and flirtations with rock, jazz and new wave influences. In the 90’s he teamed up with producer T Bone Burnett to deliver Nothing but a Burning Light, and his long-time collaborator and producer Colin Linden to release Breakfast in Timbuktu…, two of his strongest works of that period. Cockburn has only released 5 vocal albums in the 2000, each one containing a handful of strong, memorable songs.

This time out, Cockburn has acknowledged in an interview that he’s written the kind of songs an older person writes. “You’re limping like a three-legged canine,” sings the guy who seemed to struggle walking with a cane when I saw him in concert in 2019, “Backbone creaking like a cheap shoe/Dragging the accretions of a lifetime/But you oughta make another mile or two.” What seems to drive him to keep on keeping on are some of the same things that inspired him early on. He returns again and again to his environmental concerns for a climate in crisis. In “Push Comes to Shove” he sings “I could sail what’s left of the seven seas/I could swim with the bears where the ice used to be.” In a call to action “To Keep the World We Know,” he sings of “Smoke of a thousand fires/Filling up the sky…From Tundra to the Tropics/Our world’s gone up in flames.” Joined by Indigenous Canadian vocalist Susan Aglukark singing in her native Inuktitut, he warns that “Waters rise, grassland dries/Mother Earth, she weeps/Willful ignorance and greed/Prevail while reason sleeps.”

In “Orders” Cockburn addresses the divisions fueled by “The pastor preaching shades of hate/The self-inflating head of state” goes on to list of people struggling to get by before concluding that “The list is long – as I recall/Our orders said to love them all,” echoing the Jesus of the Gospels. It’s a thought that continues in “Push Comes to Shove,” that ultimately “It’s all about love,” which seeks condense Cockburn’s thoughts on spirituality at this point. In “Into the Now,” the singer reflects on the circumstances of human existence and seeks to live fully in the present, where “Light as the feet of birds hunting on sod/Love trickles down like honey from God.” Cockburn is convinced that the source of light, life and love is at work in the world; promising “you’ll become what you can be/You’re a thread upon the loom/When the spirit walks in the room.” It comes down to a choice between “Shutters and walls or an open embrace/Like it or not, the human race/Is us all,” he sings in the gentle hymn like orchestration of “Us All.” It comes with this blessing: “I pray we not fear to love/I pray we be free of judgement and shame/Open the vein, let kindness rain/O’er us all.”

“King of the Bolero” is this album’s quirky song, its “3 Al Purdy’s” if you will, although the song from “Bone On Bone” celebrating the noted Canadian poet in colorful poetic lyrics worthy of its subject matter landed much better than this song about a large bluesman that’s “Got a double chin all the way round his neck/And a pot belly in the back,” although that old world accordion was a nice touch. And like many older people, Cockburn has begun to reflect on the end that awaits us all. In “Colin Went Down to the Water,” he reflects on a friend’s death by suicide, explaining in his bio that this song is obviously about another Colin, not Linden his producer. In the album’s two closing songs, Cockburn sings of a dream about entering the afterlife: “O sun by day O moon by night/Light my way so I get this right/And if that sun and moon don’t shine/Heaven guide these feet of mine/To Glory.” You may remember he sang about “Rumours of Glory,” which became the title of his memoir, back in the day.

The album closes with a wry send off, joined on the chorus by Shawn Colvin, Sarah Jarosz, and Ann & Regina McCrary, who all join him here and there on harmony vocals throughout the album, plus Allison Russell and Buddy Miller to sing the New Orleans flavored bar-room hymn send-off, hoping for a “Halo for a saint who’s yet to be: “The dead shall sing/To the living and semi-alive/Bells will ring when you arrive.” It’s a fare-thee-well worthy of a beloved singer songwriter who has a few more miles left in him. Cockburn rounds out this album with one more track, “Haiku” an acoustic instrumental that reveals he can still create magic on his fretboard. On tour back in ’19, Cockburn played an amazing solo piece from his all-instrumental album, Crowing Ignites, and when he tours in support of this album this summer, I anticipate he’ll pull this one out to exhibit the depth and musical creativity that is still driving him forward.

“On A Roll” / “Push Comes To Shove” / “To Keep The World We Know”

T Bone Burnett / Richard Thompson / John Prine

Bone On Bone (2017)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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