In the six years since Small Source of Comfort, his last album of new songs, Bruce Cockburn has gotten married, settled in San Francisco, become a father for the second time, and started going to church again. That’s a lot, and it’s only part of the story: Cockburn spent three of those years working on his autobiography, Rumours of Glory, and when it was finished, he endured a yearlong songwriting drought. “There was simply nothing left to write songs with,” he said. “As soon as the book was put to bed, I started asking myself whether I was ever going to be a songwriter again.”
That dry spell ended with “3 Al Purdys,” a song composed for a documentary about Canada’s “unofficial poet laureate” Al Purdy, whose best-known poem is about a pint of beer that’s “half fart and half horse piss.” Channeling Purdy’s voice in lines like “the beauty of language set a hook in my soul; me like a bread crust soaking soup from a bowl” brought Cockburn back to songwriting, with the rest of the eleven cuts following over the next two years. Unlike the songs on Small Source, these have no faraway travel to spark them, but because he’s found himself in California during the current political climate, Cockburn has drawn inspiration from a world around him that feels foreign, drifting, a place where “everything is spinning in the looming entropy.”
There’s plenty of lyrical anger on Bone on Bone, from the “carcass of a tanker in the center of a stain” on “False River” to the “f—–g detours” of “Mon Chemin” to the “uniformed monkeys” of “States I’m In” to the “flapping lips of flatulence [that] bellow ‘Vote for Me’” on “Café Society.” But alongside all that outrage, which has long been part of Cockburn’s writing, there’s a renewed sense of spirituality that’s come from finding himself in church again after being away for decades. On more than half of these songs, he’s joined by a choir from SF Lighthouse, whose calls and responses transform Cockburn’s questions about God and scripture into statements of purpose. They add their affirmations to counter doubt on “Stab at Matter” and “Forty Years in the Wilderness,” and provide the full-voiced gospel momentum for “Jesus Train” and Rev. Gary Davis’ trad “Twelve Gates to the City.”
At 72, playing isn’t as easy for Cockburn as it was ten or 20 or 30 years ago. The album’s title is an allusion to his arthritis—before performances, he spends at least an hour warming up his fingers. But once he’s ready, his picking—on six-string, 12-string, and resophonic guitars—remains a thing of beauty, deeply thought and deeply felt, with an older-and-wiser economy of notes that balances urgency and patience, shimmer and substance, rhythm and ornament. And on the disc’s one instrumental, “Bone on Bone,” Cockburn faces age head-on, combining a slow, steady, monotonic bass with a melody that’s both soaring and weary—gliding between folk and jazz, and sounding as perfect as ever.