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Bruce Cockburn is one of those rare musicians who can communicate emotion without descending into sentimental manipulation.

CD Review: Bruce Cockburn Speechless Instrumental Magic

I guess it was only a matter of time until the secret was out. We could only keep the lid on it for so long before the word got around. But we up here in Canada take a perverse pleasure in keeping our treasures to ourselves. Maybe we’re scared that if too many people find out about them they’ll realize what an insignificant backwater we are and leave for greener pastures. Whatever the reason we tend to keep our brightest lights buried under a bushel.
But now, and it’s all the fault of Rounder Records, one of our best-kept secrets is out in the open for all to see. Speechless, a compilation of Bruce Cockburn’s instrumental pieces, features fifteen of his finest creations for acoustic guitar and accompaniment. This album reveals what we’ve known since his earliest days some thirty plus years ago that Bruce Cockburn is not only a superb songwriter but also a superlative guitar player and musician.

Rounder has reached as far back as the Sunwheel Dance album from his early folk days in 1971 and forward to previously unreleased material, to provide a marvelous retrospective of his ability to perform comfortably in any genre of music. From the Mississippi delta blues of “King Kong Goes To Tallahassee”, the sprightly dance of “Foxglove”, and the jazz influenced “Water into Wine” he demonstrates a delicacy of touch not normally associated with a pop or folk guitarist.

Outside of classically trained or jazz oriented guitar players, I have yet to hear anyone approach Bruce Cockburn’s ability to communicate emotions and feelings with just a guitar and its accompaniment. From the absolute precision of his picking to the careful freedom of his runs, one knows that there are no accidents or flukes in anything he is doing.

These are carefully constructed pieces designed to evoke particular feelings in the listener. Listen to the piece “End Of All Rivers” and you hear streams and rivulets converging into one larger body of water. Closing your eyes you can picture the final river, rolling through forests and over rocks in its descent to the ocean: rapids in an Ontario wilderness that gathers to it minor tributaries like a mother takes children into her arms.

Over the years Bruce Cockburn had continued to evolve as a musician. His early folk days gave way to the more jazz influenced and complicated arrangements of the album In The Falling Dark. As the 1970’s progressed Bruce was one of the first Canadian musicians to embrace the influence of the burgeoning Jamaican community in Toronto Canada, by not only incorporating the familiar reggae rhythm into his music on Dancing In The Dragons Jaws (which produced his first hit “Wondering Where The Lions Are”) but working with the musicians who were just settling into Toronto.

There was a great deal of consternation amongst Toronto folkies when he began appearing in public sporting a spiked, bleached hair cut and playing a lime green flying-vee electric guitar. That was nothing compared to the fallout when Bruce showed that he could get as political and angry as the rest of us and he sang of his desire for revenge against the people bombing woman and children in South America on “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”

Whether it was the shock of hearing him swear (“some son of a bitch would die”) or the shock of hearing him talk about killing someone, it was almost too much for some to bear. To me it was a sign of the man catching up to the power of the emotion that had always been contained in his music. Up until the release of that album he had been an almost painfully shy man during public performances, hardly ever looking up from whatever instrument he was playing, and saying very little between songs.

It was as if he woke up and realized there were people around him and he needed to communicate with them on a more direct level than before. He relaxed on stage, started talking between songs, and stood up behind his microphone instead of remaining seated and hiding behind it.

Listen to the tracks on this album, not just with your ears, but also with your heart, because that’s where the majority of Bruce Cockburn’s material is directed. Now that he has become more direct in his communication verbally it doesn’t mean he’s abandoned the other means at his disposal for addressing his audience. In fact it has been his willingness to overcome his shyness that makes these tracks all the more powerful due to the contrast they now make with his overall style.

It used to be that one would expect the quiet shy man to perform these intricate instrumental pieces in lieu of being outspoken. Although they were still beautiful to listen to, their power was somewhat diminished by the absence of anything to offset them. Now that he has become more diverse as a person and a musician these pieces have taken on new life and meaning.

If you were unaware of the talents of Bruce Cockburn as an instrumentalist than Speechless will be a revelation, but even for those of us who’ve known about this talent for years, this disc will reintroduce you to some old favourites and place his gifts in a new light. Bruce Cockburn is one of those rare musicians who can communicate emotion without descending into sentimental manipulation; Speechless is as perfect an example of this as you could ask for.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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