August 2003

Bruce Cockburn - You've Never Seen Everything
Rounder/True North Records 116 613 222-2
Released: 2003

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

There are few things more beautiful than the sound of Bruce Cockburn’s guitar. You’ve Never Seen Everything is Bruce Cockburn’s 27th release in a career that now spans 33 years. He is as serious and concerned as ever, and his songwriting abilities show no sign of diminishing. The disc contains rock songs that are vibrant and fresh, but Cockburn’s skills as both a player and arranger allow him to convincingly inject other strains of music -- jazz, blues, and folk, as well as music from other cultures --into his music.

On many of these tracks, Cockburn successfully combines his political and moral concerns with memorable writing. "Trickle Down," an indictment of corporate greed, is a driving jazz-rock tune that gives Cockburn and pianist Andy Milne (who co-wrote it with Cockburn and Carl Walker) some room to stretch out. Cockburn’s excellent acoustic-guitar solo highlights his formidable command of the instrument without overemphasizing technique. Like Richard Thompson's, Cockburn’s exceptional guitar playing is organic to his talents as a songwriter.

Cockburn fills these sometimes angry songs with forceful poetic imagery. "Postcards From Cambodia" is a moving spoken-word piece about the thousands of people who have been killed or maimed by land mines left throughout that country after decades of strife. Cockburn intones the words over a simple guitar and percussion background, and it’s a brutal travelogue:

And under the sign of the seven-headed cobra
The naga who sees in all directions
Seven million landmines lie in a terraced grass, in paddy, in bush

In the sung chorus, Cockburns allows that some issues are so large that finger-pointing is less important than action:

This is too big for anger
It’s too big for shame
We stumble through history so humanly lame

Politics is never Cockburn’s sole topic on his recordings and You’ve Never Seen Everything also contains observations about love and spirituality. "Put It In Your Heart" asks if spiritual emptiness has led to our current dire circumstances:

Terrible deeds done in the name
Of tunnel vision and fear of change
Surely are expressions of
A soul that’s turned its back on love

Cockburn’s unique talent is to take these difficult questions and put them to music that provides the immediate pleasures of pop music.

Cockburn co-produced the disc with Colin Linden, and they’ve sequenced the tracks so you don’t feel overwhelmed by Cockburn’s seriousness. They close the disc with two counsels against despair, "Don’t Forget About Delight" and "Messenger Wind." Even with its weighty subjects and occasionally flashes of anger, this isn’t a somber or oppressive disc. Cockburn’s too natural a melodist and arranger to let his message subvert his songwriting gifts.

Violinist Hugh Marsh has played on six previous Cockburn recordings and he contributes significantly to the sound of this disc. Drummers Gary Craig and Ben Riley drive the rock tunes solidly, and they play additional percussion throughout that helps flesh out the arrangements. A number of well-known guests, including Jackson Browne and Emmylou Harris, sing harmony vocals, and Larry Taylor (currently with Tom Waits, but his CV includes work with John Mayall and, of course, Canned Heat) plays stand-up bass on four tracks.

Perhaps Cockburn could have limited the spoken-word pieces to one or two (there are three, and the power of the music and imagery get you through them). But Cockburn has confronted a difficult time in history with conviction and brains. If he occasionally descends into name calling -- well, that’s the price of passion. This is powerful music, beautifully played by a musician who feels, as he sings at one point, "…an endless hunger/For energy and motion."