The Charity of Night
WHILE SEVERAL artists have fit into the general scope of this column - an examination of contemporary music in light of Christian spirituality - few are as natural a fit as Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn.
Cockburn is an oft-prophetic voice in a fallen world. In the midst of personal, political, and ideological evil, Cockburn has both expressed righteously jaundiced anger and affirmed membership in and hope for the human race. He sees humanity as the part of God's creation made in the image of God, redeemed by Christ's blood. As such, he sees the central Christian ethic to be to live according to the love of God.
Now 52 years old and 23 albums into his career, Cockburn is not part of the hit-making mainstream. His hits are, as he has put it, occasional "accidents." His new album, The Charity of Night, is more to be seen as an artistic statement, and it will be so received by his legion of fans. Cockburn has much to offer. Primarily, he is an amazing lyrical poet, who has been favourably and aptly compared to Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot. The lyrics, among other things, continue to chronicle an evolving Christian walk. Cockburn himself prefers the term "evolution" to Christianity rather than "conversion" to describe his journey.
The melodies, meanwhile, are not distracting. Rather, they are skeletons drawn into the craft of the wordsmith, serving as perfect vehicles for his inventive, tuneful, and virtuosic guitar playing and his hooking quaver of a voice. He sometimes delivers free-flowing lines whose blizzards of imagery just fit into a measure, and sometimes presents biting, staccato lines leaving spaces filled by economic but always intense accompaniment.
After the wide-eyed hippie folkie of the early '70s gave way to the growing Christian pilgrim as that decade evolved, Cockburn's life took a tumble when his marriage dissolved in the late '70s. From that personal and spiritual crisis, Cockburn spent his years on the backside of 30 exploring the brokenness of Central America. It profoundly metamorphosed his music. This is most vividly shown on what has been called his North/South trilogy of albums in the mid-'80s, and his prophetic voice continues to be the lifeblood of his craft.
Musically, Cockburn has chosen a group of inventive, standard-bearing vets this time around -- stand-up bass master Rob Wasserman, vibraphone legend Gary Burton, and drummer's drummer Gary Craig. Cameo people do what they do well without attracting attention, such as Bonnie Raitt's slide work and Bob Weir's winsome ballad vocal harmonies that were their stock in trade before either became trendy.
The backers add exclamation points to Cockburn's lyrical tales while allowing the storyteller the primacy of his words.
Familiar territory is charted musically -- the minor chord midtempo grooves of Get Up Jonah and The Coming Rains, the jazzy late '70s/early '80s sound in Mistress of Storms, the spoken word stanza/jazzily tuneful chorus of Birmingham Shadows and The Charity of Night.
There was some thought that Cockburn had mellowed with his last album, Dart to The Heart. As the title suggests, love was the chief topic. With The Charity Of Night, however, there is a wider scope to another intensely-personal statement from a concerned citizen of the world God gave us.
To wit, The Mines of Mozambique is a razor-sharp indictment of the poison of land mines in the latter part of this millennium. Seven years after his first visit to the African country, Cockburn returned to Mozambique in 1995.
The album opener Night Train is another reflection by the long-time self-described grim traveller. A chilling snapshot of the human condition, it reminds us that "everyone's an island edged with sand" while using the train's musical and lyrical metaphor for a world where everybody seems to be looking for one means or another to escape:
And in the absence of a vision there are nightmares /
And in the absence of compassion there is cancer /
Whose banner flies over palaces and mean streets /
And the rhythm of the night train is a mantra. …