72. Humans – Bruce Cockburn
Humans was actually my introduction to Bruce Cockburn, though later I would discover I was more familiar with his earlier work than I had known.
I really don’t know if the world has a better songwriter. It is one thing to be brilliant and another to be prolific. Cockburn is brilliantly prolific. Very few songwriters can write as consistently amazing songs as Cockburn and do so with no diminishing return over the years.
Cockburn is such an amazing artist that despite intense political disagreements with him on multiple issues, I have never wavered from my constant flag-waving of his music. There are simply not enough superlatives to adequately describe his abilities. All this while also being one of the most accomplished and brilliant musicians in the industry. When I speak with artists about Cockburn, there is just as much mentioning of his guitar playing as his songwriting.
I went to a tour called “20 Songs: A Night with Bruce Cockburn.” On stage behind him were an assortment of twenty instruments . At each song he would grab a different instrument and perform a song using that instrument. the amazing thing was a few months later i was able to see the same show and, though he did the same songs, he performed them with a different instrument each night!
Humans is one of Cockburn’s least political and most “human” albums. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of political observations, but there is much more heart and personalized responses to the pain and frustration he experienced through his world travels. Written as his marriage was disintegrating and on tour throughout the world, the album is filled with longing, remorse, joy and pain.
“Grim Travelers” starts the album with the “world music” influence that would populate much of this and following releases. We are also blessed with some amazing moments from violinist Hugh marsh here. His uncanny playing is utterly brilliant. The travelogue displays Cockburn’s uncanny ability to place the listener in a bus seated next to Cockburn as he describes what his eyes and heart see.
The world music expression is most notable on “Rumors of Glory.” But it is here we begin to see this rich dichotomy that will be explored throughout the album. While viewing one singular event Cockburn is able to discuss the tragedy and beauty of that singular vision. You see scorched earth that is “shining like gold.”
“More Not More” is musically the most like Cockburn’s previous more folk driven sound with the jazz influence that will show up in the following release (Inner City Front). There is a real longing and struggle to be found here. The desire to make a greater impact and receive a greater emotional reward.
A personal favorite follows with “You Get Bigger As You Go.” It is also the song that would constantly get me trouble for carrying at a Christian bookstore because of the profanity used. Cockburn has this uncanny trait of putting way too many words into a line and talks/sings in a double time melody that just pulls the listener along. The song, like the title suggests, gets bigger as it goes. It’s a long, slow droning that just envelopes and consumes the senses.
Cockburn’s most blatant discussion of his failing marriage appears on the reggae driven “What About the Bond.” This is not an attack, but rather a surrender to the reality, as painful that it is. There is both here and on a later song, this innate desire to try to save what was lost. The spiritual impact is also addressed here as the “mystical unity” that is “sealed in the presence of the Father” is used to plead his case.
The most melodic and “commercial” song on the album is “How I Spent My Fall Vacation.” Every school child dreads the annual assignment, but here Cockburn revels in using pen and paper (and melody) to express his experiences. Here Cockburn is traveling in a world this simultaneously beautiful and dangerous with visions as mundane as a man sneezing to the majesty of a volcano releasing steam. Here we see beautiful Roman street landscapes coupled with military police with itchy fingers. Marsh’s stunning and subtle playing adds a beauty to the song.
Possibly the most political song on the album is “Guerrilla Betrayed.” The progressive bass line drives a whispy vocal that shapes a sad and dangerous song. This would have fit perfectly on “Stealing Fire” and the music and lyrical content would be expanded on that album.
“Tokyo” returns to a more pop folk sound and Cockburn’s ability to express musically what are truly “visual” proves astounding. Here it should be noted that one of the great abilities Cockburn possesses is to describe in a song the utterly mundane and everyday and make them utterly unique and real. Everything from playing pachinko to “grey suited business men pissing against the wall” gives the listener an audio vision that is unparalleled.
“Fascist Architecture” returns to the theme of the loss of his marriage, but here the focus on his child. The blame here is squarely placed upon his own shoulders. This great desire to create his own life’s perfection is realized to be nothing but a false dream. The song ends with one of my favorite Cockburn moments as he expresses how there’s nothing in this world that will lock up his love for his family. There is a tragic irony here, but it is also a beautiful expression that Cockburn belts out vocally like at no other time.
The album closes, though, on a more somber note of the realization of this great grace and hope will come, but not as soon as he would like. The listener has a truly guttural response to the line “praise the razor for the fineness of the slash.” The anguish of that thought is immediately followed by the beautiful description of “The Rose Above the Sky,” that one day will set all right. This song is one of Cockburn’s finest moments and is easily one of the five best songs he has ever written. The juxtapositioning of pain and anguish with hope and glory is utterly stunning!
Many call Humans Cockburn’s finest work. I place one album above it, but would not die on that hill as both of the album to crack the Top 100 would easily make many listener’s Top 10.