Greatest Hits (1970 – 2020)
This may be the first time this writer has ever given ink to a greatest hits album, but my guess is that there are not many of us thinking of Bruce Cockburn, one of the most indelible voices of early non-commercial FM radio in the ‘80s, these days. This career-spanning collection serves to remind us of what an amazing songwriter Cockburn was and still is. What’s more is that the 30 songs in this double disc set are curated by Cockburn chronologically (when he wrote them, not when they appeared on record), revealing the evolution of his style. He also provides some quick hitting anecdotes in the liners.
This is not to infer that Cockburn has been underrecognized. Quite the contrary – he has amassed 13 JUNO wins, two Hall of Fame Inductions, countless honorary Doctorates, Officer of The Order of Canada, and a new inductee into Canada’s Walk of Fame this year. Instead, this to jog memories or perhaps bring some new listeners who weren’t around during Cockburn’s peak so that both can appreciate the directness, the poetic cadences, and both the beauty and fearlessness of his writing. The first to catch my attention was “Wondering Where The Lions Are” from his 1979 album Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws, about which he says, “The sun was bright. The sky was blue. Russia and China were not having a nuclear war. The lions in the dream were safely distant and regally beautiful, but they were out there…”
The straight-ahead tale, “The Coldest Night of the Year” along with “Waiting for a Miracle” are arguably his two best songs, gems in every possible way. Toward the end of Disc One we get a series of his scathing political songs, the artist from The North pointing the way for the screwed-up U.S. politics and foreign policies he was witnessing from Toronto. About “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” he says, “Environmental degradation, economic and political instability, the AIDS epidemic—what kind of world were the kids growing up into? And now?” He likens the caustic “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” to the game maker RPG, chronicling two jungle camps on the Guatemalan border. These are followed by two more acidic commentaries: “Call It Democracy” and “People See Through You,” with this essaying the latter, “Reagan’s America, CIA church break-ins, a magazine ad for a t-shirt with a graphic of a US Marine towering over tiny, kneeling peasant figures and the caption: “USMC -stabilizing the third world through conquest.”
If the political fare is not appealing to you, you can still appreciate the beauty of songs such as “Waiting for a Miracle,” “Stolen Land,” or “If a Tree Falls.” Ah, there are plenty of political overtones in those too. So, maybe for you it’s the ‘90s during the T-Bone Burnett producer period, resulting in such nuggets as “A Dream Like Mine” and “Listen for the Laugh.”
Colin Linden, who along with Cockburn Bernie Finkelstein produced the set, took the producer helm in mid-‘90s and collaborated with Cockburn on such songs as “Pacing the Cage,” “Last Night of the World” and has his hand in the last two songs – “Call Me Rose” (2005) and “States I’m In” (2016), markedly different from Cockburn’s ‘80s output but terrific songs nonetheless, proving that the bard from The North hasn’t lost his knack. If for nostalgic reasons or better yet, to appreciate masterful songwriting, this one is well worth your while.
- Jim Hynes
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