The name Bruce Cockburn first entered my radar screen a few years ago when my longtime music buddy from Germany mentioned the Canadian singer-songwriter. He did so again when I saw him last in December, recommending that I check him out. Subsequently, I started some listening and featured one of Cockburn’s tunes in a Sunday Six installment in January. But I’m still at the very beginning of exploring this artist, which makes a review of his new album O Sun O Moon, out May 12, a bit tricky. But after having listened to the 12 tracks a few times, I’m confident to say that would this be Cockburn’s debut album, I sure as heck would already look forward to his sophomore release!
O Sun O Moon is Cockburn’s 35th album and, according to this Glide Magazine review, “his first vocal album since 2017’s Bone on Bone.” At 77 years and soon to turn 78 on May 27, Cockburn sounds in amazing shape to me, both as a guitarist and as a vocalist. Sometimes, he reminds me a tiny bit of fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, who sadly passed away a couple of weeks ago at the age of 84. Unlike Lightfoot, Bruce Cockburn has pretty much been absent from U.S. charts since he started his recording career in 1970. That seems to be a real shame!
Before getting to some music, I’d like to provide a bit of additional background on Cockburn. I’m doing this by borrowing from his bio written by AllMusic. Most of the time, I feel they do an outstanding job I couldn’t beat. One of Canada’s greatest singer/songwriters, Bruce Cockburn has won international acclaim for his insightful songs of emotional honesty and social significance in a career that’s lasted well over five decades. While usually lumped in with the contemporary folk and singer/songwriter communities, Cockburn’s sound encompassed elements of blues and world music on early efforts like 1971’s High Winds White Sky and 1973’s Night Vision, and the gentle blend of folk and jazz on Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws won him his first significant audience outside his homeland.
Cockburn’s progressive politics came to the fore on 1984’s Stealing Fire with songs like “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” as well as a stronger rock influence, and these themes would become a major part of his work, extending to 2003’s You’ve Never Seen Everything and 2011’s Small Source of Comfort. Cockburn is also celebrated for his skill as a guitarist, and he’s matured into an éminence grise of Canadian music. 2023’s O Sun O Moon shows that he hasn’t stopped writing graceful, challenging songs of the heart, the soul, and the conscience.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the new album’s tracks. And where better to begin than with the opener On a Roll. The tune has a nice bluesy vibe and features The McCrary Sisters, Ann McCrary and Regina McCrary (of American gospel quartet The McCrary Sisters) on backing vocals. I love the resonator guitar sound! “The adventure continues,” Cockburn said in an interview with Innerviews posted on his website. “I don’t take any of it for granted. I do think that it’s going to hit the wall at some point. The hands are going to stop working or something else will happen, but for now, I’m able to keep doing this stuff.”
On Orders, Cockburn reflects on how religion keeps getting hijacked to serve political agendas. “I do hope that people will be encouraged by “Orders” and what it has to say,” Cockburn stated during the above interview. “It’s one thing to sit there and say, “Oh yeah, we’re supposed to love thy neighbor,” but Christians have been failing to live up to that for 2,000 years. And there’s no reason to think we won’t keep on failing at that. But it doesn’t hurt to be reminded every now and then, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”
To Keep the World We Know is another socially-conscious song. In this tune, Cockburn sings about environmental degradation, referencing more recent wildfires in California where he lives near San Francisco, as well as other countries like France, Greece, Spain and Australia. “The actual song came about because Susan Aglukark (a fellow Canadian singer-songwriter – CMM) called up and wanted to write a song together, and I thought it seemed like a good idea,” Cockburn explained. “We had a good time working together on it. The title was mine, but the idea of the world being in flames was hers. We’re seeing all this drought and wildfires all around the world, and it just seemed like something worth writing about.”
In addition to being a socially-conscious songwriter, Bruce Cockburn is also known as a talented guitarist. He gives us a nice flavor of his skills on the beautiful instrumental Haiku. “I’ve always felt like there was a sense of space that went with instrumental music that doesn’t typically happen with songs with lyrics,” Cockburn told Innerviews. “If I listen to Bob Dylan, I’m thinking about what he’s saying, as well as savoring the music and whoever’s playing on the record. But if I listen to Japanese flute music or Bach, I’m not doing that. Rather, I’m allowing myself to be transported to wherever that music takes me.”
The final track I’d like to highlight is O Sun by Day O Moon by Night, in which Cockburn reflects on death but does so in a peaceful way. “I think the manner of going is the part that scares us and the part that is too often tragic, and sometimes horribly inflicted on us,” Cockburn mused. “But the result of the departure I think can be approached with joy, or at least with kind of joyful anticipation. Not that I’m in a hurry or anything, but I think since it’s inevitable, death is as much a part of life as birth.”
Before wrapping up this review, a few words are in order about the other musicians on the album. First, there’s Cockburn’s longtime collaborator Colin Linden (guitar) who also produced O Sun O Moon. Other musicians include Janice Powers (keyboards), who is also Linden’s wife; Jeff Taylor (accordion); Jenny Scheinman (violin); multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke; Viktor Krauss (bass); as well as Gary Craig and Chris Brown (both drums). In addition to Colvin and Ann and Regina McCrary, guests include Buddy Miller, Allison Russell and Sarah Jarosz.
Here’s Spotify link to the album:
With O Sun O Moon, Bruce Cockburn has delivered an impressive album, which not only demonstrates top-notch musicianship and great vitality but also a singer-songwriter who after more than 50 years still has a lot to say. If you like what you’ve heard and want to experience Cockburn live, he’s scheduled to embark on an extended North American and UK tour. It kicks off on June 1st in Plymouth, N.H. and wraps up on December 2nd in Berkeley, Calif. The current schedule is here.
Sources: Wikipedia; Glide Magazine; Innerviews; Bruce Cockburn website; YouTube; Spotify