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The Bruce Cockburn canon gets reissued

Like many Americans, my first exposure to Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn (pronounced Coe-burn) came in 1979, when "Wondering Where the Lions Are" hit the FM airwaves. What was this? Mystical Christian evocations on FM rock radio? Great guitar playing, stunning lyrics and beautiful song construction? Who was this guy?"Wondering Where the Lions Are" was a Top-40 hit from Cockburn's platinum-selling album Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws. Delving into the album revealed a writer of keen intellect and prodigious songwriting skills whose songs dealt with the revelations and epiphanies that emerged from the temporal. He was a spiritualist in the real world, who saw the eternal lurking in every shadow. And he had the artistry to pull it off gracefully.

For a long time, it was difficult to find Cockburn's catalog in the US. Rounder Records has recently rectified this, signing Cockburn to a multi-album contract while remastering and reissuing his back catalog. The first batch of reissues recently hit the shelves, with the rest of Cockburn's recordings due out over the next year or so.

Three of these releases form a trilogy that marks Cockburn's passage from acoustic folky to purveyor of a jazz and blues influenced, more electric sound. In the Falling Dark (1976) opens with one of his strongest statements of faith, the magnificent "Lord of the Starfields" that combines celestial metaphor with psalm-like praise. Further Adventures Of (1978) continues with naturalistic observations ("Rainfall") while becoming more immersed in the world. By the time of Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws, Cockburn's songwriting was perfectly balanced on the tension between the sacred and profane, between worldly wonders and the mysteries of the divine. His language was rich and evocative, his metaphors hinting at Biblical references and the Holy Grail. And while his music was spiritual, his subtlety and craftsmanship owed far more to the language of Gerard Manley Hopkins or Emily Dickinson than anything that the contemporary Christian genre would ever create.

In the 1980s, Cockburn's songs began to focus more on worldly events, particularly political and social injustice, and his songs often were poetic struggles to understand the world's violence and inhumanity. His own life took an urban turn as he abandoned the Canadian countryside in the wake of a failed marriage and moved to downtown Toronto. He assembled an electric band, and the folksy mystical Christian cast his eye on the world around him; his songs soon revealed a strong leftist outlook infused with a moral center.

The 1981 album Inner City Front featured "Justice," a scathing indictment of those who kill in the name of religion. Notable on this disc is a Cockburn favorite that's found only on a few earlier and rare "best of" albums, the lovely "The Coldest Night of the Year."

The Trouble With Normal (1983) marks Cockburn's first album almost entirely dominated by political themes and shows an artist redefining his songwriting and viewpoint. The moral outrage is blooming, but his political songwriting wouldn't reach his previous artistic level until the following year with the release of Stealing Fire.

The final album in this series is his 1990 disc Live, documenting Cockburn's extensive 1989 world tour; it captures the excitement of his live concerts, particularly his excellent guitar playing. The album's bonus track is "If I Had A Rocket Launcher," Cockburn's poignant, gripping account of watching helicopter gunships terrorize Guatemalan civilians in 1983. A powerful, personal struggle between Cockburn's pacifism and his indignation and horror as he hears "echoes of the victims' cries," "If I Had A Rocket Launcher" also caught the ear and attracted the sensibilities of many in the Reagan-era USA, winning Cockburn a new legion of American fans. As if to further showcase life's delicate balance between horror and beauty, grief and joy, Cockburn closes Live with Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," a ditty originally featured in the crucifixion scene in Life of Brian. It's a bit of inspired madness to wrap up a great concert record.

As revealed in this batch of reissues, Cockburn's best work is complex and rewarding. His vision is steeped in Christian mysticism and infused with grace and beauty, while his political material is heartfelt and packed with righteous indignation. Yet he's not above writing a soft love song or laughing at the human condition. Whether he's marveling at the "beauty of jagged mountains" on Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws or lamenting "the grinding devolution of the democratic dream" on The Trouble With Normal, Cockburn's artistry is always a joy to behold. Thanks to Rounder, we now have plenty of great Cockburn reissues to relish.

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