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Bruce Cockburn - Life Short Call Now Print E-mail
Friday, 01 September 2006

Bruce Cockburn

Life Short Call Now
format: 16-bit CD
performance: 8
sound: 7
release year: 2006
label: Rounder
reviewed by: Dan MacIntosh

ImageBruce Cockburn knows that time is of the essence. Throughout a lengthy career he has chronicled our once pristine environment’s numbered days with lyrics about trucks belching smoke and un-magically disappearing rainforests. He has also documented humankind’s shrinking heart and questionable political will in far off places like Central America and the African continent, and much of it he has also witnessed firsthand. A goodly portion of Humans, one of his best albums, even found Cockburn scurrying to beat the clock on a crumbling romantic relationship. Time, as the visibly ticked-off Joe Jackson once sang, is constantly “tick-tick-tickin’” in his head.

Life Short Call Now, as a title, contains the bare minimum of words necessary. Sure, you could place a comma or a hyphen between “Short” and “Call,” and/or an exclamation point at the end. You may even want to tack on “’s” to the word “Life.” But who has time for that now? A burning rotary phone is pictured on its cover, to suggest that if you do not get your fiery fingers dialing – and right now! – only melted plastic, twisted metal and creepy white Dali numbers will be left in a smoking heap. The back cover pictures a bullet bursting through planet Earth, which conveys – before the music even commences – that this is music for and about a troubled world.

The title track finds Cockburn rubbing genie’s lamp and wishing for love on demand. Life is too short to remain lonely, but at the same time, loneliness can also feel like an eternity. I laughed out loud the first time I heard the lines: “And in the room next door to mine/The bed is banging on the wall.” For Cockburn, it is an auditory reminder that nobody is rocking his bed at that moment. He longs for a phone’s ring to drown out this bed frame racket. Personally, it’s not his solitude that makes the lyric funny to me; it brings back my honeymoon in Catalina, where our paper-thin walls reminded us that we were not the only ones expressing our physicality each island night. Forgive us – life short.

Cockburn’s political angst is vented in a few significant spots. (It just wouldn’t be a Cockburn CD without a current events update.) On “Slow Down Fast,” the speediness of the song’s poetry matches its singer’s urgency. He rattles off a litany of evildoers, including “Oil wars water wars TV propaganda whores.” Our comprehension of world events cannot keep pace with the immediate-response media delivery systems shooting gory details our way. In response to this onslaught, Cockburn pleads “Slow down fast.” These blistering headlines make it seem like the world is getting worse, and at faster clip then ever. It’s as if we are facing a 100 mph pitching machine and never even getting around on a single pitch.

If you have followed the artist’s politics at all, you can guess Cockburn is miffed about the war in Iraq. And “This is Baghdad” is his state of that torn nation address. “Everything’s broken in the birthplace of law,” it begins. He is angry with America, but then again, he’s always angry with America – especially its right wing policies. But his empathetic side comes through whenever he looks into the eyes of children forced to survive in these battle- weary lands. He worries, “Not enough morphine and not enough gauze.”

On “Tell the Universe,” Cockburn appears to be demanding that the United States apologize to the rest of the planet for its perceived global misdeeds. It is packed with anger over Manifest Destiny gone awry. “You’ve been projecting your shit at the world/Self-hatred tarted up at payback time/You can self destruct – that’s your right/But keep it to yourself if you don’t mind.” “Beautiful Creatures” is a much more generalized diatribe, which takes aim at the whole of humankind. “We create what destroys/Blind ourselves to betray/The beautiful creatures go away.”

Disgust over foreign conflict is sometimes beyond words, which is likely the reasoning behind “Peace March,” an instrumental showing off Cockburn’s Berklee College of Music guitar skills. There are two other instrumentals, “Jerusalem Poker” and “Nude Descending a Staircase.” “Jerusalem Poker” adds handclaps and horns to Cockburn’s six-string prowess, while “Nude” incorporates radio static and carries a bit of a lounge music vibe. These tracks suggest that whatever moved Cockburn to record Speechless, his recent first-ever all-instrumental album, is apparently still moving him.

Cockburn has a strong spiritual side, too. Many American Christians do not “get him,” because he does not side with the political conservatives who are at the dark end of the political spectrum where many Red State believers reside. I once saw him quoted in an interview as saying he is a Christian, but not that kind of a Christian. As a Christian myself, I am happy to have the example of a unique, against-the-grain Jesus-follower like Cockburn. It shows that the kingdom of God, for those who believe in such a thing, is a big enough umbrella to include even leftists. Abortion clinic bombers and gay-haters will not let Cockburn into their twisted clubs, but he doesn’t want to be a member anyway.

Cockburn does not talk a whole lot about God with Life Short Call Now, but whenever he does decide to spiritualize verbally, his words carry weight. On “Mystery” he admits: “Infinity always gives me vertigo/And fills me up with grace.” It is a heavy line, for someone who’s not even a pothead. Later, on “To Fit in My Heart,” he says: “God’s too big to fit in a book/Nothing’s too big to fit in my heart.”

Cockburn is often labeled a folk artist – not an accurate perception. His instrumental giftedness also qualifies him as a respected jazz guitarist.

But his recordings are further inspired blues, rock, and world music. “Mystery,” for example, features horns aplenty, including a double bell euphonium (tuba, if you will). Kevin Turcotte’s flugelhorn and trumpet work is nearly omnipresent, especially noteworthy on the disc’s title track. Not surprisingly, Jonathan Goldsmith – a veteran of many jazz recordings – produced this CD. He has added many of its keyboard textures, including celeste and glockenspiel. Julie Wolf contributes various keys, including harmonium, Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, B3, accordion and melodica. Although there are many typical jazz elements, the music doesn’t exactly swing. And to some purists, it don’t mean a thing…

Vocally, Cockburn is a musical conversationalist, at best, instead of a singer’s singer. He is like that polite voice inside your head, telling you how things really are. He departs greatly from his usual midrange approach, however, during “Beautiful Creatures,” which can best be described as having a Cockburn falsetto. I have heard a lot of his songs over the years, but I have never heard him reach up to this register. It’s unusual, and a nice, unexpected touch. This track also swells with breathtaking strings. “To Fit in My Heart” similarly finds Cockburn stretching for few higher notes, so maybe this recent trek up the musical scale is becoming a trend. Either his life is too short not to go alto, or his shorts are too tight.

Life is too short to take calls from telemarketers and from your long-winded and boring uncle Larry. Time ought to be allotted for Bruce Cockburn’s music, however, because his songs are deeply thought-out and ever-relevant. Cockburn has your number, so when the phone rings, never hesitate to pick it up.

The sound quality on Life Short Call Now is sufficient but hardly noteworthy. I am tempted to bribe Daniel Lanois into producing Cockburn’s next CD, because that man knows how to take a singer/songwriter’s music and transform it into an aural jewel. Go listen to Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy and tell me I’m not right. Lanois adds elements Cockburn could use – echoed textures, unusual instrumentation and other cool studio stuff, which escalates lyric masterpieces into musical mystery novels. The producer’s job is to make the listener want to hear what the singer is saying, which does not happen nearly enough during this new Cockburn effort. Instead, it requires some digging on the listener’s part to truly appreciate it, and that shouldn’t ever happen. Nevertheless, have your shovel ready.

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