A friend asked me where he should start with Bruce Cockburn’s music. Knowing my friend to be a guitarist, I recommended Crowing Ignites (2019), a collection of new instrumental pieces, and Speechless (2005), an anthology of guitar tracks compiled mostly from previous releases.
Had I left it at that, my friend likely would have checked out those albums and, suitably impressed, begun his own exploration of Bruce’s music. But no. I had to add, “You know, you can’t really go wrong with Cockburn. Grab an album and dig in.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d given generalist advice like this. Always, in the back of my mind, I worry the novice might stumble on “The Bicycle Trip” from Bruce’s first album. It’s not a bad song, just kind of aimless, like a lazy bicycle ride. What sends my hand to the skip button is a nasal-hummed chorus that whines like overinflated tires. It’s my least favorite Bruce song. Sorry.
When making the general “you can’t go wrong” recommendation about Cockburn music, I sometimes think, “What are the odds they’ll randomly land on ‘The Bicycle Trip’? There are hundreds of beautiful Cockburn songs. Odds are you’ll get a good one.
Of course, I could be wrong about “The Bicycle Trip.” I was wrong once before. Maybe it is a brilliant song, and I am too dull to appreciate its glory.
My friend didn’t find “The Bicycle Trip.” Nor did he follow my advice to begin with the instrumental albums. Instead, he selected an album on his own and listened to the title track. This is usually a safe bet. Listen to Bowie’s “Heroes” from Heroes, or Mitchell’s “Blue” from Blue, or just about any song for which its album has been named and it’s likely an engaging, memorable song. As fate would have it, my friend chose the titular track “You’ve Never Seen Everything” from Bruce’s 2003 album.
“I listened to some Bruce Cockburn,” my friend said, his eyebrow now permanently arched with an incredulous scowl. “I don’t think I am going to like him very much.”
I protested. “Oh, no. You can’t judge his work by that one piece, man.”
He’d heard enough.
When Bruce’s twenty-first album, You’ve Never Seen Everything, was released I was distracted with finishing a degree and starting another and barely noticed anything but books and deadlines. Many of the songs became concert standards, so I knew “Open,” “Put It In Your Heart,” “Wait No More,” “Celestial Horses,” and a couple more from hearing Bruce play them, but I hadn’t listened to the entire album until long after its release. Its title track, unforgettable as it is, slipped my mind. More precisely, the song wedged itself into the safety-locked compartment where I keep traumatic dental procedures, botched high school English presentations, cruel laughter and pointing fingers.
It’s standard practice for artists to title their albums with the strongest song, or a song that carries thematic weight. In there somewhere must be the notion of the title track as a calling card, an elevated selection that might draw the listener into the entire album. It doesn’t have to be the first song, but the title track is usually the most memorable and, maybe, danceable song in the collection.
“You’ve Never Seen Everything” certainly is memorable, unless suppressed by psychic antibodies.
The song is listed tenth in the order. With a running time of 9:13, it’s the longest cut on the record. It’s one of Bruce’s partially spoken pieces. In that regard, it’s in good company with “Lily of the Midnight Sky” from World of Wonders (1986) and “The Charity of Night” (1996) from the album named for it, but “You’ve Never Seen Everything” is its own phenomenon.
So, what’s the big deal about “You’ve Never Seen Everything”? It might be the song for our times, actually. The lyrics are nine minutes of doomscrolling over a horror movie soundtrack. Not even its pretty chorus can undo its gloom. Listening to this song is like being with a tortured uncle who reads out loud from The Daily Dread at Christmas dinner.
“Turkey’s really good, Ma,” someone might say.
“Did you hear about the baker in India who mixed pesticide with his flour to improve his margin? He poisoned half the town.”
Then, as everyone looks up from their plates, frozen in tableau, comes the punchline: “When the survivors found out, they ‘butchered that baker’.”
And the table erupts in groans and the clattering of dropped forks.
The piece begins with the narrator establishing his weariness and fatigue, then runs through about six stories of despair, ironic tragedy, and rage at the inequities of trans-global economics. Every now and then, like after the “butchered that baker” line, Cockburn offers a solemn “You’ve never seen everything.”
Thank the Creator for that, I say.
The album itself is excellent, and the title track certainly has its morbid place in the lineup. Produced by Colin Linden and featuring a list of guest artists that could be taken from the roll call for a meeting of the most accomplished popular musicians of this era – Jackson Browne, Sarah Harmer, Emmylou Harris, Sam Phillips – You’ve Never Seen Everything is a trip. Interlaced throughout are sounds similar to bullfrogs and night, gurgling ponds, and strange scraping noises. It’s jarring and brilliant. The textures of ambient noises weave the songs together.
Most importantly, the songs are solid. I’ve already named a few of the concert regulars, but listen to “Put It In Your Heart,” Bruce’s response to 9/11. It’s brilliant and angry and Zen in its transcendence.
Or listen to “Open,” one of Cockburn’s more playable songs for mortal guitarists to attempt. That song could have been in the top ten on the Sunshine List. The video for “Open” was filmed in New York, and has Bruce wandering the streets with an acoustic guitar. Several scenes of New Yorkers staring at Bruce and the camera as they pass are hilarious. I didn’t think New Yorkers could be shocked by cameras or famous musicians, but it’s on their faces: “Is that John Denver?”
The album brings together Cockburn’s core touring and recording rhythm section for the past decade or so: the always astonishing drummer Gary Craig, who paints rhythm with unexpected accents and silence, and the rock solid bassist John Dymond. Producer and blues master Colin Linden drops in on mandolins and guitars. And, perhaps the player most responsible for the oddness of the aural landscape, longtime Cockburn collaborator, violinist Hugh Marsh.
Many other musicians contribute as well. For a complete list of players, why not buy a copy and read the liner notes, ya cheap so-and-so?
At one point in the doomscrolling tirade of “You’ve Never Seen Everything,” Cockburn seems to catch himself with the brutality of the events he describes. In one verse, a murder-suicide is accomplished by mounting a pitchfork on the dashboard of a car that crashes near the Gardiner Expressway: “Two dogs in the back seat die, and in the front / a man and his mother / Forensics reveals the lady has pitchfork wounds in her chest –.” After delivering this line, the surprised and exasperated narrator gasps, “Pitchfork!,” as if he hadn’t seen it coming, and the Christmas dinner is cleared away, and the kids are sent off to play, and the host makes a mental note to not let Uncle Bruce bring his newspapers to the table next year. But he continues, “And that same or a similar instrument has been screwed to the dash to make sure the driver goes too / You haven’t seen everything.”
Thinking of this song, I imagine a heated debate at Cockburn Central, deep in the war room at True North Records, with Bernie Finkelstein and others pleading with Bruce to name the album after one of the nice songs. “How about Open? Catchy tune, inviting title. Could be a hit. Or Put It In Your Heart, that’s the point, isn’t it? Not pitchforks, music, healing!”
This is all speculation, of course. Transcripts from the planning sessions are not easily obtained.
Is it perverseness that would have an artist title his album after the most shocking and inaccessible track? Maybe it’s a challenge to the listener: How do you like me now?
Either way, one potential Bruce Cockburn fan has been discouraged from going further after listening to the track. Taken in context of Bruce Cockburn’s entire song catalog, “You’ve Never Seen Everything” is a meditative slow dance on the edge of madness, a reaction to broadcasted despair, and the laying bare of chaos to shock the listener awake. It is hard medicine that works like an astringent against the album’s overall magnificence. Could that be the point? That we must be prepared for ironic tragedy?
The chorus, sung with Emmylou Harris for Christsake, offers brief melodic relief: “Bad pressure coming down / Tears, what we really traffic in / ride the ribbon of shadow / Never feel the light falling all around.”
All that being said, “You’ve Never Seen Everything” should not frighten the listener from You’ve Never Seen Everything. It’s a glorious album. The production is textured and crisp. Colin Linden, known for his solo work and as a member of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, is a top tier producer and master musician. As a producer, Linden builds the sound around song and performance. He makes himself invisible, each album produced to bring out the feel of the sessions and the songs. It is interesting to hear Mr. Linden’s evolution as Cockburn’s producer. Beginning with a masterpiece, The Charity of Night, Linden’s production has evolved with every album, which in turn has allowed Cockburn even greater expression of his genius.
Do I recommend the album You’ve Never Seen Everything? You bet. You really can’t go wrong with Cockburn. But begin with the first track.
I was so concerned with the strangeness of the album’s title song that I neglected perhaps the prettiest of them all, the last in the order, “Messenger Wind.” Sadly, such gentle and beautiful things are often overlooked.
A commentator on Facebook posted that “Messenger Wind” was in the running for the album’s title. The commentator didn’t identify sources. Maybe he was at that eleventh hour meeting at True North Headquarters.
The song seems to touch on spirit, on becoming, like a thought on the wind that enters the world in the time honoured way: “In front of the house where I’m supposed to be born / I don’t think I’m ready to walk through that door just yet // To be one more voice in the human choir / rising like smoke from the mystical fire of the heart.”
There is no way of knowing until we know, but I’d wager the still small voice in this song carries a fairly accurate explanation of what we are and where we came from.