Album Review: Bruce Cockburn - "Life Short Call Now"
So imagine my complete and utter surprise upon listening to Life Short Call Now, an album that manages to show us several new levels of innovation and creativity from Cockburn while remaining reminiscent of the tenderness of distant memories Further Adventures Of and Humans. Gone is the stridency and harshness of You've Never Seen Everything (an album that I find very difficult to enjoy, despite its containing two of my favorite Cockburn songs ever, "Open" and "Put It In Your Heart"). In its place is some of Bruce's most gentle, understated, and soulful songwriting ever, backed by horns and a 27-piece string section, creating--dare I say it?--a music we have never heard from Cockburn before.
The whole darn album is beautiful, a delight and a surprise coming so soon on the heels of YNSE's hard-eyed self-righteousness. After the languid, strolling journey of the title track, Ani DiFranco adds a luscious, airy flavor to the backup vocals of the more urgent "See You Tomorrow." The album takes a big left turn into the campfire song "Mystery," a simple folk tune that builds vocally and instrumentally into archetypal bliss, completely predictable and delightful all at once. "Slow Down Fast" is the album's pulse-racer, appropriately titled and more than a little reminiscent of "Trickle Down" from YNSE. "Different When It Comes to You" surprises me every time I listen to it; it's perhaps the most typical Cockburn song of the bunch, a mish-mash of "More Not More," "How I Spent My Fall Vacation," and "Someone I Used to Love," but it makes me smile every time anyway. Coming only a year on the heels of the instrumental compilation Speechless, it's no surprise to find Life Short home to three excellent and varied instrumentals, the cheery "Peace March," the haunting "Jerusalem Poker," and the creepy-silly bossa nova that ends the album, "Nude Descending a Staircase."
But it's the album's long, slow drinks of music that have made it my favorite Cockburn song cycle in years. "Beautiful Creatures," "This Is Baghdad," and "To Fit In My Heart" are instantly and easily three of the most affecting songs in Cockburn's catalog.
It's long been a pop cliche that when you can't make the music sound big with your songwriting, you hire the string section to fill in the blanks. The obligatory string wash, especially in contemporary Christian music, usually makes me want to bang my head against the floor just to jar the cheese out of my ears. In this case, though, Cockburn employs the strings expertly, adding deeper emotional levels and counter-melodies, rather than using the strings as an expensive Mellotron. Already-beautiful songs such as "This Is Baghdad" and the achingly gorgeous "Beautiful Creatures" are elevated to transcendence by the 27-piece section.
"Beautiful Creatures" may be the most beautiful song Cockburn has written since "All the Diamonds in the World," and it is made all the more vulnerable by his slightly uncertain falsetto vocals. "To Fit In My Heart" and "Beautiful Creatures" have melody structures and intervals I don't think we've ever heard from Bruce, which would be nothing special if they weren't so hypnotic. "To Fit" lingers on the first note in each phrase well after you think it should have moved on, filling a very slow, monotonous song with tension and drama.
Of course, the signature Cockburn guitar loops are there, deceptively complex little patterns of jazzy chords that sound simple on the record, but prove maddeningly difficult when you try to learn them yourself. But the album lacks his other most singular signature; there are no songs with talking in the verses. Usually Bruce is good for two or three talking songs and one or two instrumentals, but I can only assume that after Speechless his mind is on melody. And of course the musicians he surrounds himself with put in masterful performances, Gary Craig's drums, David Piltch's basses, and keyboards of all kinds from Julie Wolf and John Goldsmith never detracting and always contributing to Cockburn's guitars and vocals. Goldsmith also takes on production duties, a welcome change from the last couple albums, where co-producers Cockburn and Colin Linden squashed the life out of even the good songs. Goldsmith's soundscapes are lush without ever seeming remote, even the string and horn sections sounding as intimate as the acoustic guitars and gently-brushed snare.
Lyrically, Cockburn is still Cockburn, the most gracefully blunt poet-songwriter I have ever come across. He illuminates darkness and expresses the inexpressible; he looks in the mirror, doesn't always like what he sees, and forgives himself (and all of us) with a shrug and a prayer. He continues to address everyday experiences with mercy and tenderness, contrasted with rage for oppressive governments and seething over Iraq. There has never been any doubt where Cockburn's political passions lie, and it can make his music hard to listen to if you're remotely conservative or even centrist. But the sociopolitical content on Life Short Call Now doesn't come across as grating or condescending, unlike You've Never Seen Everything, which I find preachy and alienating. This is an artist's passion for what he believes to be truth, and no one can begrudge it him, especially when he expresses it with such brutal beauty. Even explicitly anti-Bush rants such as the (consecutive) "Slow Down Fast," "Tell the Universe," and "This Is Baghdad" should be at least tolerable to the Hannity fan who likes good songwriting.
So go buy this album. Seriously, go get it. Life Short Call Now may be Cockburn's most magnificent achievement since Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws, and it certainly stands strong with the songwriter's best work.
(Mike got it first, by the way.)