Out There

Knowing where the lions are

The Charity of Night
Bruce Cockburn
Rykodisc

If 1994's Dart to the Heart was Bruce Cockburn flexing the muscles he'd built up since the mid-'70s--his reputation and technique snagging T Bone Burnett as producer and a rocked-up sound heavy on horns--then The Charity of Night is his older-and-wiser work, full of reverie and contemplation, his mystical Christian imagery paradoxically more oblique yet ringing even more sharply in the ear.

Produced by Cockburn and Colin Linden--who played on Dart--Charity owes much of its jazzy, sophisto-folk feel to the gracefully buoyant bass of Rob Wasserman. Laden with guest appearances--Bonnie Raitt, Bob Weir, Patty Larkin, and Gary Burton, to name but a few--this album has an eclectic accomplishment and ambition that makes it every bit a brother to classic albums like Joni Mitchell's Hejira. The songs are still recognizable as part of Cockburn's work--the geopolitical reference points, the internationalist settings, the almost cinematic narrative snapshots--but the ebullience so often displayed on Dart has given way to tones less bright; here, dust, rain, and smoke often obscure the sun.

In "Get Up Jonah," everyone Cockburn runs into seems to be a former employee of some fallen state's secret police; on the title track, he juxtaposes erotic imagery with a random killing and a jet strafing an unfortunate Central American village. Night appears in the titles of three songs, and in "Pacing the Cage," Cockburn allows that "sometimes the best map will not guide you." It's a lyric darkness that the music--Cockburn's usual sharp blend of American roots and tropical/African rhythms--does much to dilute, keeping despair at bay. Ironically, the disc's closing song, "Strange Waters," turns the formula on its ear, marrying a portentous melody with steadily building dynamics to words that accept the weirdness and menace of the narrator's path even as they describe them.

For faith persists in the face of everything. After a few thoughtful listens, it becomes clear that Cockburn knows that high hopes mean more when you acknowledge the danger at the core of every possibility, that without that counterweight, optimism is merely delusion. Cockburn is no longer the guy who thought (in 1984's "Lovers in a Dangerous Time") that it was enough to "kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight"; now his "shadows follow him everywhere," but he retains enough of his youthful idealism to know that those constant shadows "should tell me I'm traveling toward light." It may itself be scary, bring disillusion or defeat, but Cockburn still knows that the real charity of night lies in the dawn it promises.

--Matt Weitz

 
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