Bruce Cockburn, "Rumours Of Glory" (True North Records, 2014)
Canadian National Treaure Documented and Celebrated
Forty five years, 1969 to 2014, of music from Canadian singer/songwriter, political activist, spiritual adventurer and guitarist extraordinaire Bruce Cockburn are celebrated in this magnificent eight CD, one DVD boxed set. Compiled by Cockburn manager and True North Records founder Bernie Finkelstein, the collection contains 117 tracks on the CDS, 14 of them rare or unreleased, and another 19 live tracks on the DVD recorded on Cockburn's 2008 solo "Slice Of Life" tour. The boxed set is a companion to Bruce's memoir, also titled "Rumours Of Glory" a 540 page documentation of Cockburn's life with the lyrics to 100 of the boxed set's titles woven into the prose for good measure.
How does one impart the scope of this most ambitious project? Cockburn's songs transcend music, the lyrics filled with incredible metaphors and full of inspiration are a perfect match for his renowned prowess on guitar, acoustic and electric alike, as well as resonator and dulcimer. Musician, spiritual traveler, ecologist, political activist, parent, all these describe Bruce Cockburn, the human being. These attributes cannot help but stand out in Cockburn's musical catalog. "Rumours Of Glory" delves deeply into this catalog with the first seven discs containing tracks selected from his 21 studio, 5 live and 5 compilation albums, the material being presented in nearly chronological order.
Disc one opens with a couple of middle to later day recordings, first 1996s "The Charity Of Night" which "offers three separate vignettes spanning thirty years" including events in Honduras in 1985 when Cockburn witnessed the government of El Salvadore bomb its own people." Next up is Cockburn's incredible song regarding the fate of the rain forests and conditions in Third World Nations, 1988s "If A Tree Falls" which poses the perennial question, "if a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?" Cockburn's guitar work is especially good on this one, highlighted by an incredible solo. Two tunes into the set and I already know I am holding something very special in my hands. The best known Canadian musicians come to mind, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young the first two come to mind, and I am already comparing Cockburn's work on an equal level. In contrast to Mitchell and Young, however, Cockburn chose to remain in his native Ontario, rather than relocate to the US. This choice certainly came at the price of several million records, although he has managed to top the 7 million mark in world wide record sales as of 2014.
Following "If A Tree Falls" the set travels back to a much earlier time, 1969, for "Man Of A Thousand Faces" an autobiographical song about how Cockburn resembles a
"chameleon, blending in with whoever he's with, but being not an impostor, but rather an observer, a contributor and someone who really cares." The first two discs contain songs from Cockburn's folk years closing with Bruce's lone US hit single, 1979s "Wondering Where The Lions Are" which peaked at #21 on the Billboard charts and resulted in an appearance on Saturday Night Live. A real highlight of disc two is "Stolen Land" recorded in 1986 lamenting the treatment of aboriginal people in Canada and Native Americans in the United States. The music on the first two discs is almost entirely acoustic.
By the time the songs from disc three get going, Bruce's involvement in international politics and relations comes to the fore of his music, beginning with 1983's "The Trouble With Normal" whose title track's chanted chorus, like so many of Bruce's songs serves as both an accurate appraisal of the state of the world and a harbinger of the steady decline in quality of life conditions for citizens of places such as Central America and the Middle East. Disc three contains what is probably Cockburn's best known song, 1984's "If I Had A Rocket Launcher" an anti-war song written while Cockburn was visiting Guatemalan refugee camps in Southern Mexico and he cries out in anguish and outrage at the violence laid upon the refugees and laments not having an RPG to even things up a bit. Cockburn's manager Bernie Finkelstein suggested the song be released as a single. Cockburn countered that no radio station would program the song. Luckily for us, Bernie's opinion won the day. The song reached #94 on the US Billboard charts. "Waiting For A Miracle" is especially touching as a cry of the Nicaraguan citizens' improvement in living conditions under the Sandinista government even as the world's most powerful nation, the United States, was doing all it could to undermine and displace the Sandinistas, an update of a topic Cockburn addressed in "Nicaragua" from 1983's "The Trouble With Normal."
Cockburn isn't always so serious in his writing as in the classic (who put that bullet hole in) "Peggy's Kitchen Wall" a musical question that remained unanswered for many years until the shooter was identified in Bruce's memoir "Rumour Of Glory." As the author whimsically lamented it would have been more fun if he'd never found out who did the shooting. Likewise, 1998's "The Last Night Of The World" tells of Bruce's female friend of years before had said that she'd like to go out drinking champagne in a bath, whereas Bruce had a "survival" backpack with food, tools, and such. Obviously her idea became desirable to Cockburn.
By the mid-1980s Cockburn was also championing the then burgeoning HIV/AIDS cause with "Lovers In A Dangerous Time." The song did very well on the Canadian charts and was slated to be released as a single in the US but attracted little attention south of the border. 1985 saw Bruce take aim at the IMF and its treatment of Third World nations in "IMF, dirty MF takes away everything it can get" and "you don't really give a flying fuck about the people in misery." Powerful stuff, complete with an incredible guitar solo to close the tune. Likewise, disc six's "The Mines Of Mozambique" expresses Bruce's disdain for land mines. Some titles are rather self explanatory, such as "Gospel Of Bondage" and "Radium Rain" further evidence of Cockburn's concern for the planet.
On disc seven Bruce visits atrocities old and new in "Post Cards From Cambodia" and
"This Is Baghdad" which serve as markers in time along Cockburn's life long gift for observing and reporting on the state of humanity. It is as no wonder, and only fitting, that financial support for this project came, in part, from the Government of Canada through the Department of Canadian Heritage (Music Fund Of Canada).
Disc eight contains rare or unreleased tracks, 14 of them, nearly an hour in all. Standouts include the philosophical "Wise Users." This is the disc that will interest Cockburn fans the most. Perhaps more rare tracks could have been included, but as a long time fan I am very pleased with the song selection overall. There are a couple of tracks I would like to have had included, such as 1983's "Candy Man's Gone," but that is inevitable.
The DVD included is from the 2008 "Slice Of Life" solo tour It includes 78 minutes of music, 19 tracks, and is the first ever full concert long DVD Cockburn has released. The sound and video are excellent. Some would like to have had video from Bruce's most commercially successful period in the 1980s included, but the set list is impressive and so is the playing.
True North Records did a wonderful job on the packaging. The eight CDs are in four double-digipaks, nice and sturdy. There is a 90 page booklet with complete track annotations as well as an essay by Nick Jennings. The box sets are hand numbered, 3,000 copies, and are autographed by Cockburn. I can think of two big reasons you should purchase this box set right off the top of my head. First, and perhaps most importantly the music found here is top quality, songwriting and performance alike. Cockburn is not to be underestimated as a songwriter of the highest order as well as a top flight guitarist. Second, and arguably equally important is the incredible story of the state of the Earth as told by observer and reporter Bruce Cockburn. Regardless, "Rumours Of Glory" is an incredible box set, get your copy before it sells out.
Review by Kevin Rathert/2016
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