Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bruce Cockburn

  • Humans [Millennium, 1980] B-
  • Resume [Millennium, 1981] B+
  • Stealing Fire [Gold Mountain, 1984] B
  • World of Wonders [MCA, 1986] B
  • Waiting for a Miracle [Gold Castle, 1987] B
  • Big Circumstance [Gold Castle, 1989] B
  • Anything Anytime Anywhere: Singles 1979-2002 [Rounder, 2002]  
  • You've Never Seen Everything [Rounder/True North, 2003] Choice Cuts
  • Life Short Call Now [Rounder, 2006] Choice Cuts

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Humans [Millennium, 1980]
Occasionally he hits a phrase that merits its aura of heightened significance: coming at the climax (not end) of "Guerilla Betrayed," the line "I'd like to put a bullet through the world" says it all. More often he wrecks an acceptably literate description with the likes of "across the straight [really `strait,' but spelling doesn't count] a volcano flew a white smoke flag of surrender." Vocals that work a nice synthesis of conversation and declamation cover his ass. B-

Resume [Millennium, 1981]
Cockburn is like a smart, nice, but not especially hip/cool English prof--if he caps "Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long" with "Lord of the Starfields," just how raunchy is his barrelhouse likely to be? I'll take smart and nice over hip/cool anytime, and this best-of showcases his conventional wisdom at its most eloquent--you'll never catch the Devil taunting John Denver with an ecstatic "Why don't we celebrate?" But I skipped grad school because tragic-sense-of-life ironies weren't enough for me, and they still ain't. B+

Stealing Fire [Gold Mountain, 1984]
The songs about life and love fade into the usual high-IQ lyricism, but the ones about politics bite and hold. Not just because they're more violent (guns and copters galore) or virtuous (folk-rock Sandinista!)--because they're more specific. It isn't just ideology that makes "Who put that bullet hole in Peggy's kitchen wall?" a better lyric than "Pay attention to the poet/You need him and you know it." Me, I pay attention to rocket launchers. B

World of Wonders [MCA, 1986]
Cockburn's a very smart guy with as tough and articulate a line on imperialism as any white person with a label deal. Few singer-songwriters play meaner guitar, and as befits an anti-imperialist he knows the international sonic palette. Unfortunately, his records never project musical necessity. The melodies and/or lyrics carry the first side anyway, but though I'm sure Cockburn has some idea what the synthesized pans are doing on the cry of politico-romantic angst and the vaguely Andean fretboards on the Wasp dub poem, what the world will hear is the oppressive boom-boom of four-four drums. B

Waiting for a Miracle [Gold Castle, 1987]
After listening to two LPs worth of "Singles 1970-1987" three times, I'm convinced the miracle he's waiting for is one that transmutes a single into a hit. I'm waiting for his benefit compilation for the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador. B

Big Circumstance [Gold Castle, 1989]
Where other singers have soul, Cockburn has dudgeon, fiercer and bitterer with every record. Delivering lines like "don't breathe when the cars go by" and "may their gene pool increase" as if his life depended on them, which before he's dead it could, he reveals rules about the ineluctable bad faith of the political for the know-nothing shibboleths they are. Too bad he still cultivates his "personal" side. I await a best-of filled with protest and nothing but. B

Anything Anytime Anywhere: Singles 1979-2002 [Rounder, 2002]
Both modernist and high church, Cockburn's disdainful Christian dudgeon is a vast improvement on fundamentalist blinderdom even if you're a convinced populist. Singing about love or imperialism (though he's better on imperialism), he assumes a moral vantage whose cleansing clarity is a comfort on nights when the future's so dark you gotta wear a miner's hat. And sufficient unto the day is the musicality thereof. [Recyclables]  

You've Never Seen Everything [Rounder/True North, 2003]
"Trickle Down" Choice Cuts

Life Short Call Now [Rounder, 2006]
"This Is Baghdad," "Tell the Universe" Choice Cuts

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1970s]: This born-again Episcopalian (he's the type who appreciates oxymorons) is genuinely literate as well as genuinely musical. But I've been boycotting poetic types who admire the Church of England ever since escaping John Crowe Ransom as an undergraduate.