For almost 20 years Ive been waiting for the next great Bruce Cockburn album. As this century closes, I got it. In 1980 Cockburn delivered his musical masterpiece, Humans, that, to me, marks the high point of his three-decade career (he first started recording in the early 1970s). I was 17 at the time I purchased it and not exactly a prime candidate to listen to a guitar-playing folksinger. However, that album affected me like few others, and Humans was welcome alongside, say, London Calling from The Clash into my personal musical pantheon. "Rumours of Glory" and "Tokyo" were the minor radio hits spawned from Humans, which many people know. But it is the tracks like "Fascist Architecture," "Grim Travellers," "Rose Above the Sky" and "How I Spent My Fall Vacation," songs with vivid imagery and stories, that push Humans into greatness. The entire album is a view of the world through Cockburns eyes.
Right after Humans Cockburn virtually abandoned the acoustic guitar for electric and traveled through many musical styles as he traveled the world. Although Ive followed his music almost religiously, I havent found any one album as rewarding as Humans. Pieces here and there impressed me, but overall they werent of the same caliber -- until now.
Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu is the first Cockburn album in some 20 years that, in its entirety, has pushed my buttons like Humans. It is an accomplished and highly polished disc, beautifully recorded, that showcases some of his finest songwriting to date. This album seems to take that last 20 years of musical experimentation and mix it back where Cockburns acoustic folk career left off. While it could still be called folk, it's far more adventurous than to be pigeon-holed like that.
The faster-paced "When You Give It Away" with its biting lyrics, opens the disc and shows that Cockburns critical eye hasnt relaxed. Hes always had a social conscience, and many times he used his songs to elevate his cause. However, its lighter weight in this regard compared to over-the-head thumpers like "If I Had a Rocket Launcher." Instead, it isnt the lyrical content that makes this album special; it the surprising mix of musical styles that shine through the rest of the album -- jazz, folk, rock and African styles all show up here.
"Mango," the second track, has a relaxed, infectious melody with vocal harmony by Margo Timmins of The Cowboy Junkies. The easy-going feel of this song would be right at home on Humans. "Blueberry Hill" (yes, that "Blueberry Hill") also features Timmins, but in a duet instead of background vocals. This song, mind you, is OK but probably the weakest of the album. The opening guitar on "Last Night of the World" sounds strangely like "Tokyo." Whether thats deliberate or not, Im not sure, but it at least seems to be a gentle reminder. "Isnt That What Friends Are For" shines with excellent recording quality that highlights Cockburns deep and resonant voice and showcases Lucinda Williams doing harmony this time. Although almost all the songs are top-notch here, this is one of the best. Williams also shows up on a number of tracks, and her ethereal voice lends a haunting presence. "Look How Far" is perhaps my favorite. Cockburn also recruits Jonell Mosser to do backup duty on "Last Night Of The World" and "The Embers of Eden."
Most of the songs on Breakfast feature female accompaniment, and the more I listened to this album the more I realize how much Cockburn has come to rely on strong-voiced females for backup. Cockburn has a powerful speaking voice, but hes not the worlds finest singer. Having someone accompany him seems to bring a bit more musicality to each song. This isnt the first album hes done it on, but its definitely the best.
Unlike some of his previous albums that had smatterings of greatness on various tracks, Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu once again delivers that singular Cockburn vision -- like Humans, its cohesive. In writing this review I had the chance to reflect on almost every album of Cockburns career, and this made me appreciate this album more. No, this isnt Humans, but its close -- darn close and highly recommended.
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