Bruce Cockburn had built a body of work which centred around mystical spiritual imagery, and intricate, dexterous, acoustic guitar-driven folk-jazz which was definitely pastoral in nature. One of the elements of his songwriting approach was the tendency for him to write as an uninvolved observer. With a few exceptions, even Cockburn’s most spiritual tunes from the Mississippi John Hurt meets C.S Lewis ‘Dialogue With The Devil’, to the sublime and metaphor-rich ‘All the Diamonds In the World’ and onto ‘Lord of the Starfields’ the lyrics of which read more like one of the psalms than a modern-day song, Cockburn’s own presence was largely missing in his own songs. His song ‘Laughter’ from his album Further Adventures Of… is particularly telling in this regard, in which the songwriter laughs at the absurdities of the modern world from the comfort of his own insular one.
All of that changed with 1980’s Humans, when the world at large crashed violently in on the safety of Cockburn’s own personal songwriting duck blind.
Faced with the end of his marriage, and the helplessness, rage, sadness, despair, and a whole range of emotions that went along with it, Cockburn turned to an approach to songwriting that put him right in the picture, that presented himself warts and all. As a result, it became his most engaging release to date, and continues to hold few rivals for those who know it.
The title of the album, Humans, is very apt as we the listener hear each song, many of which detail Cockburn’s many emotional states. ‘More not More’ is a cry of anguish. “You Get Bigger As You Go’ is resignation and sadness. ‘What About the Bond’ is sanctimony. And ‘Fascist Architecture’ is admission and resolution, although it can be gathered that although Cockburn resolves not “to lock up his love again”, you get the feeling that such a resolution will serve him in the future, but not in his present situation. In the end, these songs track the reality of loss, not a hope for reconciliation. As such, this is a bittersweet album, one dealing with processes, not with neatly tied up conclusions. And it is this new chapter in his life which would drive Cockburn to switch gears musically as well as personally, even starting with tracks on this very album.
One such shift is the distinctly rock approach, with urban jazz stylings and reggae flavours thrown in. This is made fairly easy by Cockburn’s own significant skill and versatility as a guitarist, as well as a change of scenery from the rural outskirts of Eastern Ontario to the heart of Toronto. Here Cockburn works with musicians with some grittier, more city-centric textures at their disposal- Hugh Marsh‘s insistant jazz violin, and Pat LaBarbera‘s exploratory tenor saxophone being two of the most obvious examples. “Rumours of Glory” is a standout track illustrating the embrace of reggae. The Canadian radio hit “Tokyo” is the picture of urban decay and alienation, its pulsing electric rhythm guitar inspired more by the Cars than by anyone in the folk traditions of the past.
Another major shift Cockburn makes on this album is a fully formed political conscience. This had been present in the past on songs like 1975’s “Burn”, and 1976’s “Gavin’s Woodpile”. But, here Cockburn is reaching for an even more empathetic stance, a stronger connection with the themes he evokes. Both “Grim Travelers” and “Guerilla Betrayed” paint pictures of the disenfranchised – “bitter little girls and boys from the Red Army underground” and “the politician’s tools” which are left to contend with a world which offers little hope for comfort, safety, or resolution. One gets the impression that Cockburn’s observational stance is over, and the seeds of connection and involvement with some of the issues about which he is writing is becoming intertwined with his own sense of spirituality.
The album’s closer “Rose Above the Sky” harkens back to early days of mystical imagery. Yet here, once again, he’s connected with his own emotions, his own state of being. While the universe unfolds in a great and wondrous mystery, Cockburn’s “gutless arrogance and rage/burn apart the best of tries”, sharing centre stage with “the light behind the sun” which “takes all”. The eternal is present as in the past, but this time so is Cockburn. And it will be this model of how he will go forward on subsequent albums, as well as a person. His political activism and the resulting songs coming out of travels to repressed and war torn areas such as Nicaragua, Tibet, and East Africa to name a few will later come to define his style, and his very identity.
Humans is Bruce Cockburn’s conversion album in a different way than his 1974 Salt Sun and Time album was. Where the latter was his conversion to Christianity, the former was his conversion to true engagement with his own emotions and with the world around him that required his attention.
There’s a great overview of Bruce’s career and outlook on the True North Records site. Check it out!
- The 1977 live album Circles in the Stream, recorded at Massey Hall in Toronto (the same venue of the most recent Neil Young live album) is a great introduction to Cockburn’s early phase as a mystical folky. And it also showcases his skills as a guitar player, putting him in the same league as Bert Jansch and Richard Thompson.
- 1988’s Big Circumstance is a logical next step after Humans, as it is the one which shows him hitting his stride as the writer of engaging, and politically infused travelogues, the seeds of which were planted with the earlier album. This said, 1984’s Stealing Fire does the same thing, with his most famous tracks ‘If I Had a Rocket Launcher’ and ‘Lovers in a Dangerous Time’, along with hidden gems ‘Nicaragua’ and ‘Dust and Diesel’.
- Of his more recent releases, both 1997’s Charity of Night and 2003’s You’ve Never Seen Everything illustrate his songwriting maturity, his eloquence as a social commentator, as well as his continually stunning guitar chops which touch on rock, blues, jazz, Middle-Eastern, and a myriad of other styles.
To give you a taste of Cockburn’s guitar calibre , here’s a clip of his 1981 performance of his instrumental ‘Deer Dancing Around A Broken Mirror’ (first featured on the aforementioned Circles in the Stream album) with Triumph guitarist Rik Emmett.
Hover over the image and click the ‘play’ icon. To enlarge the window, click the magnifying glass icon. Enjoy!