Review: ‘Imaginational Anthem Vol. XIII: Songs of Bruce Cockburn’ Brings New Life to Time-Tested Tracks

Compiled by indie star James Toth, this collection is the unlikeliest of tribute albums, recasting Cockburn for a younger, hipper audience.

The Tompkins Square record label’s Imaginational Anthem compilation series started innocently enough, digging up recordings by forgotten performers like Max Ochs and anthologizing them alongside marquee names like Robbie Basho and John Fahey. But over time, the series has grown more indie, and with this 13th volume, a tribute to the revered 78-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, it’s become a full-blown, teenage contrarian. 

Compiled by indie star James Toth, who performs here as half of Armory Schafer and elsewhere as Wooden Wand, it’s the unlikeliest of tribute albums, recasting Cockburn for a younger, hipper audience. It starts with the beautifully childlike “Foxglove,” Cockburn’s second attempt at writing an instrumental, reimagined by Eli Winter with an electric buzz to re-ground the sweetness of the original melody in something darker, more diffident. Next, there’s a rumbling electric tremolo to open Jerry David DeCicca’s “Forty Years in the Wilderness,” punctuated by a ringing, whammy bar–inflected solo that brings a disquieted restlessness to Cockburn’s need to keep moving before “everything comes undone.” 


The surprises keep coming: There’s a wailing harmonica and amplified slide guitar on Matthew “Doc” Dunn’s “Up on the Hillside,” a Southern-fried version that’s a thousand miles from Cockburn’s native Ottawa. There’s a marimba to play the lead on Lou Turner’s “Pacing the Cage,” giving the track an unexpected brightness, and an electric piano/organ to play the guitar parts on Armory Schafer’s “One Day I Walk,” resulting in an extra churchiness. Going in the opposite direction, there’s a cavernous lead vocal and a backwards-masked guitar on Wet Tuna’s “Waiting for a Miracle,” questioning if that long-awaited miracle will ever arrive. 

None are choices Cockburn would have made. Ever. But each one is conceived in love, and each finds a way to bring new life to these songs. That’s the tribute Cockburn deserves, and it’s the perfect way to introduce him to a new generation, celebrating the staying power of his songs and the mastery of his writing. 

Various Artists, Imaginational Anthem Vol. XIII: Songs of Bruce Cockburn (Tompkins Square)
Kenny Berkowitz
Kenny Berkowitz

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