critic’s pick 168

Four-plus decades into the game, Bruce Cockburn remains forever a folk journeyman, an artist whose chronicles balance the political and the spiritual while speaking bluntly from the heart and even more so from various troubled ports of the world. And then there is the not-so-small matter of his abundant resourcefulness as a guitarist. With all these wellsprings to draw from it’s no wonder the veteran songsmith has no shortage of ideas or inspiration to forge music from.
You might think otherwise at the onset of Small Source of Comfort, Cockburn’s first album of new songs in five years. In the liner notes, he labels the album-opening The Iris of the World almost apologetically as a road song. “I did a lot of driving between Kingston, Ontario and Brooklyn, NY,” he writes. “Not to mention many other places.” But it’s a riveting travelogue of a tune, one where the modes of transportation are never clearly defined and the destination is seldom visible – at least, not initially.

“I’ve got a way with time and space, but numbers freak me out,” Cockburn sings. “I’ve mostly dodged the dogmas of what life is all about.”

Later, on Each One Lost, Cockburn bears witness to a “ramp ceremony” in Afghanistan where two fallen Canadian soldiers are honored before being flown home for the final time. Cockburn views the loss, and the inevitable love the soldiers inspire, in universal but devastatingly simple terms: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss.”

Musically, Small Source of Comfort is one of Cockburn’s lightest and leanest albums in years. The songs are primarily designed within mostly acoustic parameters with veteran sidekick Colin Linden again serving as producer and the longstanding rhythm section of bassist John Dymond and drummer Gary Craig offering tasteful support. There are also two new recruits on board.

Coburn penned a pair of songs with folk stylist Annabelle Chvostek, the slo-mo meditation Driving Away and the more ethereal tale of travel, Boundless. The other enlistee is violinist Jenny Scheinman, an artist known for balancing expert songcraft and with equally audacious instrumental smarts (she has collaborated extensively with guitarist Bill Frisell).

Scheinman opens Cockburn up to several jazzy turns, especially within the five instrumentals peppered among Small Source of Comfort‘s 14 song lineup. The summery and still-travel themed Lois on the Autobahn is a spry highlight among the wordless tunes.

Small Source of Comfort concludes with a surprise, an affirmation called Gifts. It was a staple of Cockburn’s early career concert repertoire. The liner notes date the tune back to 1968 with the singer adding, “Didn’t seem right to record it until now.” On an album infatuated with travel, Gifts is the home Cockburn’s sublime music returns to.

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