“Time takes its toll, but in my soul I’m on a roll,” Bruce Cockburn sings on his latest studio album, O Sun O Moon. Smart and catchy, it’s the kind of memorable line—like “gotta kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight” from his classic song “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”—the world has become used to hearing from Cockburn.
An inspired poet and exceptional guitarist, the award-winning artist has spent his entire career kicking at the darkness with songs that tackle topics from politics and human rights to the environment and spirituality. And he’s not letting up. While other singer-songwriters his age are slowing down, Cockburn, on the eve of his 78 th birthday, has released a dozen new compositions as powerful as any he’s written. You could even say his songwriting is on a roll as well.
Exquisitely recorded in Nashville with his longtime producer, Colin Linden, O Sun O Moon exudes a newfound simplicity and clarity, as Cockburn focuses on more spiritual than topical concerns this time around, looking back and taking stock. “I think it’s a product of age to a certain extent,” he explains, “and seeing the approaching horizon.” Then, lightening the tone, he adds with a laugh: “I think these are exactly the kind of songs that an old guy writes.”
Old or not, Cockburn exhibits a palpable urgency on the opening “On a Roll,” playing a driving resonator guitar with all the vigor of his veteran blues heroes. Similarly “To Keep the World We Know,” one of the album’s few explicitly topical numbers, bristles with Cockburn’s buzzing dulcimer as he and Inuk music star Susan Aglukark, with whom he co-wrote the song, sing about the growing threat of global warming.
Still, most of the songs strike gentler tones, from the jazz sway of “Push Come to Shove” and the folky drone of “Into the Now” to the string-laden “Us All” and the hymn-like “Colin Went Down to the Water.” The latter, one of several songs Cockburn wrote while on a month-long holiday with family on the Hawaiian island of Maui, describes the drowning of a friend. “It’s not about Colin Linden,” Cockburn is quick to point out, “but someone I knew from San Francisco who’d moved to Maui. It was tragic and quite surreal because I got a voicemail message from him when I was in Maui, saying ‘Welcome to paradise,’ and then found out afterward that he’d died.”
Speaking of surreal, another song written while in Maui, the whimsical “King of the Bolero,” is unlike anything else on the album. Over a woozy clarinet and drunken, New Orleans-style horns, Cockburn paints a cartoon portrait of an oversized barroom musician “with a double chin all the way round his neck and a pot belly in the back.” Is it a dream or a figment of his imagination? In a gravelly voice, Cockburn leaves us guessing as he sings “it’s moon high noon—I’m not in my Bed.”
“The people I was with in Maui were quite perplexed when they heard that song,” muses Cockburn. “After hearing the other things I’d written there, they wondered ‘where did that come from?’ It really came from out of the blue. I remembered when I was in high school one of my friends made a crack about an old blues singer who used to come through who he said had a double chin in the back. It was a funny thing to hear at the time and it stayed with me. I didn’t want to make it specifically about a black blues guy, so I mention Minnesota Fats and Fatty Arbuckle as well as Fats Domino and Fats Waller.”
As with so many Cockburn albums, the musicianship on O Sun O Moon is superb. Along with usual suspects Linden on guitar, Janice Powers on keyboards and Gary Craig on drums, the album features bassist Viktor Krauss, drummer Chris Brown, accordionist Jeff Taylor, violinist Jenny Scheinman and multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke. And Cockburn’s guest vocalists include Shawn Colvin, Buddy Miller as well as mellifluous singers Allison Russell, Sarah Jarosz and Ann and Regina McCrary, daughters of gospel great Rev. Samuel McCrary, one of the founders of the Fairfield Four. The McCrary sisters shine brightest on the title track, whose full name is “O Sun By Day O Moon By Night.” They sing the euphoric chorus of the song which relates, during spoken verses, a dream Cockburn had in which he makes the journey to heaven. “In the dream, which was really powerful,” says Cockburn, “I see myself silhouetted on a ridge with this jar of blood pouring it on the soil. It wasn’t scary or disturbing at all.” Cockburn adds that he wrote the line “and if that sun and moon don’t shine” in the spirit of songs from the folk ballad “Mockingbird” to the blues number “Bo Diddley.”
The album’s jazzy closer, “When You Arrive,” finds Cockburn confessing to feeling his age when he sings “You’re limping like a three-legged canine, backbone creaking like a cheap shoe.” But it’s clearly a song of acceptance, about eventually slipping one’s mortal coil, as he’s joined on the chorus by all of his guest vocalists, singing “bells will ring when you arrive.”
O Sun O Moon includes just one song without vocals, “Haiku,” a four-minute showcase of Cockburn’s fleet-fingered guitar work, where his previous studio recording, 2019’s Crowing Ignites, was a collection of all instrumental numbers. In between those albums, Cockburn, the Order of Canada recipient, 13-time Juno Award winner and Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee released a 50th anniversary box set, greatest hits package and rarities collection.
Never one to rest on his laurels—even when, as he notes, “time takes its toll,” Cockburn keeps finding and conquering new challenges, never repeating himself in the process. “I just don’t want to ever keep doing the same thing,” he says. “I’m grateful that I can keep on doing anything at this point,” he adds. “My body doesn’t hold up and perform the way it once did.”
That may be so. But the legendary musician has just made his 38th studio album. And it may stand as one of his best of his long and storied career.