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“I’m still here,” singer Bruce Cockburn declares on the opening track of his first collection of new songs for Rounder. He sings about being “tried and tested” on the song of that name: “By the cries of birds / By the lies I’ve heard / By my own loose talk / By the way I walk / By the claws of beasts / By the laws of priests / By the glutton’s feast / By the word police.” But he’s still here. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a world without Bruce Cockburn.
Although more of a cult figure than contemporaries such as fellow Canadians Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen, Cockburn has created an enlightened body of work–27 albums to date–that vividly represents the progressive potential of contemporary pop music.
A rock ‘n’ roller who absorbed jazz sensibilities at the Berklee College of Music, Cockburn started making an impact with the 1979 single “Wondering Where the Lions Are” and heightened his profile with 1984’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (written after a visit to war-devastated Central America).
Cockburn has distinguished himself by provocatively probing issues of social responsibility, the enigma of love, and the meaning of self, in a folk-rock blend that’s tinged with jazz and world-music elements and marked by his remarkable facility on acoustic and electric guitars.
On You’ve Never Seen Everything, the 58-year-old singer-songwriter pursues his central themes by offering “Postcards from Cambodia,” pulling back the curtain on the charade of promises in “Trickle Down,” announcing his attitude about love in “Wait No More,” and confessing to “an endless hunger / For energy and motion” and a craving to be “open.” Musically, Cockburn adds programmed beats and loops to his usual mix of bass, drums, violin, and guitars, and almost raps several of his songs.
Cockburn’s blend of folk and hip-hop tends toward a drone in several places, but he transforms the potential monotony into a kind of tribal rhythm, drawing the listener into a compelling conspiracy of hope.
Contributing Editor Derk Richardson writes for Yoga Journal, Acoustic Guitar magazine, and SFGate (www.sfgate.com). He lives in Oakland, California, where he studies the Japanese movement practice shintaido.