“It’s not unusual for me to have roaming be a noticeable feature of an album,” says Bruce Cockburn. But LIFE SHORT CALL NOW found the singer and guitarist traveling, as he puts it, “a bit further afield” than usual.
How far? “Baghdad, for instance,” he says. “I went to Baghdad in 2004 and spent a week there, which produced the song This is Baghdad. I wanted to see what was going on for myself, because I didn’t believe what I was reading.”
Then there’s Missouri, featured prominently in the title song. “The first verse of that song is entirely Missouri, driving through there from St. Louis to the other side of the state,” he says. “It kind of came in between relationships, and expresses the loneliness of the road that a lot of travelers feel, whether they’re musical travelers or other kinds.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s an instrumental called Jerusalem Poker, whose provenance derives from a happier occasion—a holiday trip to the holy city with his girlfriend. And then there’s To Fit In My Heart, a song Cockburn describes as being about “the spiritual wandering that goes on in all my albums. There’s an ongoing quest to sort of figure out the cosmos, and that song is certainly part of that quest. It’s a reflection of things felt.”
It’s also a reflection of the restless energy and enduring curiosity that has marked Cockburn’s career as a musician and songwriter. The 29th album in a career that’s midway through its fourth decade, LIFE SHORT CALL NOW is wide-ranging, playful and adventurous, eager to take chances and happy to push limits. The songs run the gamut from the politically charged patter of Slow Down Fast to the classic folksong cadences of Mystery, and from the vocal intricacies of Ani DiFranco’s harmonies on See You Tomorrow to the deadpan modernism of the jazzy instrumental Nude Descending a Staircase. The CD was produced by Jonathan Goldsmith who also produced Stealing Fire in 1984.
As might be expected from the author of If I Had a Rocket Launcher, some of the songs are pointedly topical, but never in the obvious way. This Is Baghdad is more portrait than polemic, focusing on the sights and sounds and people of the city. “You don’t get to know a place in a week, but you get a taste,” he says. “And it’s a real taste, as opposed to what you get from TV or the paper.
“That’s the value of making a piece of art about something. The job is not necessarily to be factual—although the art is generally stronger when it is factual, or fact-based—but you can convey the emotional content of a situation in a way that mainstream news reporting tries not to do. By its nature, the news tries to be objective; I don’t have that burden. My job is the opposite: This is what it feels like for a guy from Canada to be sitting in Baghdad, talking to Iraqis.”
Then there’s Tell the Universe, which—although very much a Bush song—an appeal to conscience, not a blanket condemnation.
“Rather than say, ‘You bastard, look what you’re doing,’ it seemed more to the point to say, ‘Look, God is watching you, the Cosmos is watching you,’” Cockburn explains. “The closest it gets to castigation is the bridge, where it says, ‘You’ve been projecting your shit at the world/Self-hatred tarted up as payback time.’ It may be too simple to say that’s the psychology of Rumsfeld and that crowd, but it’s what it looks like.
“It seemed to me worth putting things in those terms, rather than being another voice going, ‘I hate you.’ I don’t think I want to write an ‘I hate you’ song.”
Then again, neither does he have much interest in writing an “I love you” song — at least not the usual sort, anyway. Instead, Cockburn would rather write something like Different When It Comes to You, which he calls “a slightly twisted take on the standard love song idea.”
LIFE SHORT CALL NOW finds Cockburn performing mostly on acoustic guitar. “These songs evolved at least partly during a period of a lot of solo shows, or duo shows that I did with Julie Wolf, just keyboard and guitar,” he says. “Generally, a song gets recorded on whatever guitar I wrote it on, and these took shape more on the acoustic side of things—the 12-string, the six-string, the dobro. We were loaned a baritone guitar, made by a guy here named Tony Karol, and that’s the guitar that you hear in Peace March. I ended up buying it, because once you’ve recorded on the damned thing, you have to go and play it for people that way.”
Baritone guitar wasn’t the only new addition to Cockburn’s sonic palette on the album. There’s a string section on several tracks, something that came about in part because that’s how Cockburn heard This Is Baghdad in his head, and in part, he says, because “I’d never done it before.”
Jazz trumpeter Kevin Turcotte appears on several songs, and is part of the horn section that helps bring Mystery to its conclusion. To enhance the intended Salvation Army Band effect, the horn players brought in antique instruments, one of which dated back to the 1850s. Unfortunately, Turcotte’s horn was so ancient that its springs no longer pushed the valves back into place after the keys had been pressed. “We actually had to gaffer tape his fingers to the valve, so he could pull them up after he played each note,” says Cockburn. “It was funny as hell to watch.”
Cockburn also enlisted the help of some of Canada’s best young singer/songwriters to provide vocal harmonies for the album, a group that includes Ron Sexsmith, Hawksley Workman and Damhnait Doyle. “I was going to keep it all Canadian, and then through some fortuitous broken telephone calls, Ani DiFranco kind of volunteered her services, and I was very quick to say yes,” says Cockburn. “The nice thing about getting people who are singers and writers in their own right is you don’t get a studio sound—you get character.”
Cockburn also took some chances with his own singing, particularly in Beautiful Creatures, which soars up into falsetto because, says Cockburn, “it seemed like the melody wanted to go there.
“There was a time I would’ve been afraid of being laughed at for doing something like that,” he adds then chuckles. “But at this age, I don’t give a shit.”