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Review of Bruce Cockburn’s O Sun O Moon

Wednesday, 7 February 2024  | Andrew Stewart

Bruce Cockburn fans are rejoicing that, as he heads deep into the sixth decade of a recording career that spans more than thirty-five albums, he returns with a new album that delivers his most consistent set of songs for many years.

Cockburn’s previous album, Crowing Ignites (2019), was an instrumental offering, and while his voice is starting to show evidence of his age, his lyrics have lost none of their intensity.

As a seasoned traveller, a feature of Cockburn’s songwriting has been his reflections on the many ‘out of the way’ places he has visited. But with his advancing age and the onset of COVID-19, overseas sojourns are no longer on the lyrical agenda, with the exception of a postcard-esque reflection on an encounter in Maui with a bar-room singer (‘King of the Bolero’).

Instead, with this latest album (released in 2023), Cockburn intensifies his sense of spiritual reflection and introspection. For an artist who has shared searing cynical takes on global politics over the course of his many albums, ‘O Sun O Moon’ is perhaps surprisingly optimistic given all that is currently going on in the world. This sense of optimism is best summed up in the lyrics to the opening track: ‘Time takes its toll, but in my soul, I’m on roll’.

For those sharing Cockburn’s Christian faith, his lyrics are at their most challenging in the song ‘Orders’. By providing a litany of various people, he expands on the idea of loving our neighbour with the reminder that ‘our orders said to love them all’.

The just, the merciful, the cruel

The stumbling well-intentioned fool

The deft, the oaf, the witless pawn

The golden one life smiles upon

The squalling infant in mid-squall

The neighbors fighting down the hall

The list is long - as I recall

Our orders said to love them all

This song also contains one of the best lyrical take downs of Donald Trump, referring to him as ‘the self-inflating head of state’.

Bruce Cockburn is one artist who first put environmentalism on the musical agenda with his breakout 1989 song ‘If a Tree Falls’. He revisits this theme with the song ‘To Keep the World We Know’. Musically, this track is surprisingly upbeat as it carried the weight of heavy lyrics lamenting the current state of the planet:

Waters rise, grassland dries

Mother Earth, she weeps

Willful ignorance and greed

Prevail while reason sleeps

‘When the Spirit Walks in the Room’ powerfully reminds the listener that it makes no difference who or what you are: ‘you’re a thread upon the loom when the spirit walks in the room’. The Spirit has called to Bruce throughout his long and distinguished career and his artistic genius has been to richly convey that sense of Spirit to his listeners through his music. While he readily acknowledges that he is coming to the end of his time, the ‘light in the darkness’ still clearly burns bright for him. This album beckons a new generation of listeners to heed the Spirit’s call and take ‘shelter in the light.’

Andrew Stewart is a chaplain at Mentone Grammar and a long time Bruce Cockburn fan.

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