1980, Music

Humans (1980) by Bruce Cockburn

Cockburn is one of those singer-songwriters I’ve taken my sweet time getting to, especially strange given his nationality. (Or perhaps that’s on purpose on my part.) This is only the second Cockburn album I’ve ever heard despite how prolific he is and despite his citizenship. (He is a bigger deal in my country, I suspect, than he is elsewhere.)

Cockburn is one of those songwriters I’m really on the fence with, and I wonder how much this has to do with his songwriting and how much it has to do with his arrangement and production choices. (More on the latter in a bit.) As a songwriter, I think he has a pretty good, if not spectacular, sense of melody. Certainly this album isn’t lacking for decent melodies. There’s nothing here that gets stuck in my head, but this is folk – it’s not about the hooks.

I have more issues with his lyrics: like so many acclaimed songwriters who I don’t quite love, I’ll here certain lines of Cockburn’s and think “That’s brilliant” or “That’s clever” or “What a good lyric.” And then, often in the same song, I’ll be like “Okay, what?” (I know these are two different people but I feel the exact same way about Paul Westerberg.) I suspect this happens with more songwriters than I notice, but those songwriters do a better job of hiding it from me with their aesthetic.

And that’s where I really struggle with Cockburn: he is a midtempo folk singer, and that’s perfectly fine. I prefer more edge to my midtempo folk singers but that isn’t really the thing that doesn’t work for me here.

It’s his arrangements, which are big and full of instruments, some of which vaguely recall reggae – in nearly the whitest way possible – and which are entirely too big for folk music, in my opinion. The whole thing isn’t as out of control as Stealing Fire– that record is “contemporary” folk in the worst sense of “contemporary” – but it’s still very over done.

And the sound of it, though not “1980”, is also very much of that period where folk singers suddenly decided they needed synthesizers in their songs. 40 years later it doesn’t sound so great. (Imagine if this was just Cockburn and his guitar? Or Cockburn, his guitar, and a couple instruments?)

But I think this set of songs is mostly good enough to overcome the arrangement and production missteps. Though if every Bruce Cockburn album sounds vaguely like this, I’ll never be a fan.

7/10

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