At this point in his career, saying that Bruce Cockburn has made a terrific album is kind of redundant.
In fact, Bruce Cockburn has made more than a dozen terrific albums, and a bunch more very good ones. He’s had a long career – his new album You’ve Never Seen Everything is his 27th – and while he’s something of a national hero in his native Canada, he’s pretty much a nonentity here. Which is a shame, because Cockburn is a talent that deserves wider recognition and blah blah bitty blah.
I’m so tired of singing this same song. Aren’t you tired of hearing it?
Most of you don’t know who Bruce Cockburn is. Just a glance at his sales figures makes such a statement self-evident. Somehow this man has managed to create 27 albums over more than 30 years, and still escape the notice of just about everyone. He’s on tiny Rounder Records now in the United States, and there’s no question that Rounder is a great label – they discovered Alison Krauss, and released the soundtrack to the Buffy musical, just for starters. They’re just small. They don’t have the resources to put Bruce Cockburn’s incredible music in the home of every American, and there’s only so much room on the radio dial anyway and Jennifer Lopez is taking up most of it with her ass. So you don’t get to hear Bruce’s new album.
I try to pretend most of the time that this greed-driven music distribution system we have doesn’t make me angry, but truth be told, it pisses me off. You all know who Puff Daddy-slash-P. Diddy is. You’ve all heard the Backstreet Boys. I talked to a guy at work this week who buys nothing but MTV-promoted “rebellious” rock, like Disturbed, Linkin Park and Staind. He just bought his first Jimi Hendrix album, because Hulk Hogan recommended it on TV. He’ll buy the Staind album the day it comes out, but it takes Hulk Hogan to convince him to try Jimi Hendrix.
Guess what? He was blown away. He’s a Jimi fan now.
Music should be taught in schools, right alongside English and math. Kids should know that they’re being used, that marketers have targeted them since birth to buy products disguised as emotions. They should know that there’s a world of music that won’t be spoon-fed to them, a world that’s brighter and more vivid than anything TRL says they have to buy, buy, buy. They should be encouraged to appreciate music as art, and be taught to discern the honest and talented from the plastic and calculated. Otherwise they’ll grow up to buy Staind albums. Or, you know, albums by whatever group of sullen, middle-class mopers have taken Staind’s place in the grand machine.
Everything is backwards. Everything is in reverse. There’s no way that Carlos Santana should have to duet with Rob Thomas or Michelle Branch to sell albums. (The best part of that last sentence is that people stumbling upon this column online in 10 years will be scratching their heads and asking, “Rob who?”) There’s no way that a talentless bozo like 50 Cent should be selling millions of records and Terry Taylor should have to post a letter to his website practically begging his tiny group of fans to buy his albums, not copy them for each other. He can’t pay his bills, you see. He needs the paltry income his few hundred CD sales a month bring him to live.
Seriously, what the hell is going on?
This is not music that no one would like, either. Most of the great albums that appear and disappear month in and month out are filled with songs people would respond to, if only they got to hear them. Many of them are filled with songs that would open worlds to people, overflowing with sounds they’ve never heard in combinations they’ve never imagined. But we’re trained, you see. We’re trained by the grand parade of lifeless packaging, trained to believe that our opinion means nothing. That our taste means nothing. Most people don’t like music unless they’re certain that everyone else will like it, too, and they can be reaffirmed by the herd.
This mentality makes it incredibly simple for the marketers. If the primary characteristic of something “good” is that everyone likes it, and everyone is afraid of deviating from the norm, then it’s the simplest thing in the world to use the mass media machine to make a certain product the norm. Put 50 Cent on the radio 40 times a day and in heavy rotation on MTV, for no other reason than because the record company said so, and you’ve circumvented the natural order of things – you’ve made something “good” by making it popular first, instead of letting it become popular because it’s good. If you can do that, and get people used to it, then the product can be any old shit you wish.
All of which makes it harder to find the music that actually is good. Take Bruce Cockburn, for example. (This is, after all, supposed to be a column about him and his new album.) As redundant as it may be to say, You’ve Never Seen Everything is a great album. Cockburn plays a tricky yet appealing blend of jazz and folk, with indelible melodies and impeccable guitar work. Just the opening guitar figure of “Tried and Tested” is enough to win you over – it’s deep and soaring, weaving a dense web of light. “Open” is a wonderful pop song, as is “Put It In Your Heart,” and there hasn’t been a more graceful, gently uplifting number this year than “Don’t Forget About Delight.”
The most impressive aspect of this album, as usual, is Cockburn’s gift with lyrics. It’s always worth it to digest his albums whole, since he offers the most finely tuned sense of lyrical balance you’re likely to find. The message of nearly every Cockburn album is that life is absurdly difficult and depressing, but hope is always there. He juxtaposes moods like no one else – furious political rant “Trickle Down” (which contains a stunning piano solo by Andy Milne and the great line “pinstripe prophet of peckerhead greed”) is followed by “Everywhere Dance,” the most gentle and beautiful thing here. And it’s all about unnamed hope – “And we cry out for grace to lay truth bare, the dance is the truth and it’s everywhere.”
Similarly, the nine-minute title track is a mostly spoken litany of responses to the person who says they’ve seen everything: “On the other side of the world the drug squad busts a child’s birthday party, puts bullets in the family dog and the blood goes all over the baby. And the Mounties are strip-searching schoolgirls because they can.” The song laments the fact that we “never feel the light falling all around.” One song later and he’s making sure we “Don’t Forget About Delight” – “Amid the post-ironic postulating and the poet’s pilfered rhymes, meaning feels like it’s evaporating out of sight and out of mind, don’t forget…”
In many ways, though, “Tried and Tested” is the mission statement of the album, and of this phase of Cockburn’s life. It lists off the trials the song’s narrator has faced, and concludes with one repeated phrase – “I’m still here.” Twenty-seven albums into a career which, added all together, probably doesn’t equal the sales figures of Avril Lavigne’s one record (five, Mike!), Cockburn is still here, following his muse and his conscience and simply making great music. Music which, unless you seek it out, you’ll never get to hear.
The stupid music distribution system works just fine for the rich guys who run it, so it’s not going to change. That means we have to. We need to crawl out from under the pile of soulless shiny crap they keep dropping on us, and seek out the good stuff, and support it. None of this means you need to agree with me about Bruce Cockburn – he’s my current example of a guy who’s had a lengthy, acclaimed career in relative obscurity. There are many, many more, most of which I’ve never heard. And isn’t that the best part about music – the discovery? Yes, it’s harder than it needs to be to find those magical musical moments, but finding them is always worth it, isn’t it? This is no time to be complacent. That’s exactly what they want. Dig. Discover. Explore.
To paraphrase the man, you’ve never heard everything.
See you in line Tuesday morning.