Typically for song lists like these, I like to spotlight some of the lesser-known tunes from well-known artists not lacking in general airplay. In this case, I'm focusing on an artist whose most familiar compositions remain sadly unheard, especially in America. For that reason I'm selecting Bruce Cockburn's most prominent '80s songs for display, in hopes that some of this rewarding artist's obscurity begins to melt away someday just like, perhaps, the injustices he often sings about.
One of the finest acoustic guitarists on the planet, I believe, Canadian singer-songwriter Cockburn had already been on the pop music scene in his native land for a full decade before this song showed up on his 1980 album, Humans. From the very beginning of his long and varied career, Cockburn has written precise slice-of-life songs like no one else - as quirky as those of vocal sound-alike Warren Zevon and as heartfelt and beautifully crafted as you'll ever hear. This track features a typically arresting chord progression as well as a distinctly haunting guitar sound, but perhaps Cockburn's lyrics full of intense emotional detail best set him apart from the pack - or, more precisely, the handful of artists in his class.
As a songwriter, Cockburn has always been among rock music's most reflective sorts, which is one of the many factors probably that kept him from denting the American music charts during the '80s. This 1981 song stands out in many ways, from its liberal use of alto saxophone to its fascinating, arpeggiated guitar foundation, but I seem always to find at least a couple of lines from each of Cockburn's lyrics that truly sound like no one else could have dreamed of writing them. In this case, I'll select the following passage from one of Cockburn's most moving meditations on loneliness and the unique tension of being human: "When two lovers really love, there's nothing there/But this suddenly compact universe of skin and breath and hair."
At one of my last jobs I had an aging computer that still gave the option of a text screensaver. Perhaps it's telling that I was tempted periodically to spotlight in large letters on my screensaver a Cockburn lyric, culled mostly from songs that betray his righteously outraged assessment of modern life. Not surprisingly based on its title, this song expresses sincere and literate trepidation about the global tendency to accept the status quo. "The trouble with normal is it always gets worse" is one of my many favorite Cockburn lyrics, and a truer statement in rock music you'd be hard-pressed to find. As governments continue to "play pinball with the Third World, trying to keep it on its knees," Cockburn's relevance only seems to grow.
This 1984 atmospheric rocker from Cockburn's well-received Stealing Fire deals with one of the artist's favorite themes - the sometimes ominous fragility of the human condition - from the perspective of romantic love. Though this is a bit of a departure for a singer-songwriter as fiercely political as he, the song's passion regarding the elusive concept of a meaningful life comes through as clearly as ever. Modern life continues to multiply its threats almost exponentially, and like a Romantic poet Cockburn urges us through this track to resist the cynicism that sometimes swarms us: "One day you're waiting for the sky to fall, The next you're dazzled by the beauty of it all." Moving, insightful material, all in a day's work for Cockburn.
A visit to Central America during its tumultuous mid-'80s struggles left Cockburn angry and intent on spreading the word about Third World abuses involving puppet governments and appalling living conditions for the people they rule. This particular result - one of rock's strongest political statements ever put on record - also happens to crystallize the new wave sounds of the period rather perfectly. But its primary strength lies in Cockburn's lyrics overflowing with humane passion. Rather than expressing literal aggression, the artist expresses desperation in the extremity of statements like this: "And when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate, If I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate."
In the hands of a less talented songwriter, Cockburn's songs could sometimes be misconstrued as the rantings of an idealogue rather than a humble, dignified artist. After all, Cockburn's interests and concerns often begin to seem like fixations, especially his frequent commentary on Third World injustice. However, buoyed by admirable sincerity as well as a remarkably literate, succinct pen, a song like this manages to avoid sounding repetitive or one-dimensional in its condemnation of corruption. Cockburn has few peers when it comes to descriptive declarations with serious teeth: "See the paid-off local bottom feeders/Passing themselves off as leaders./Kiss the ladies, shake hands with the fellows/Open for business like a cheap bordello."
Above all, Cockburn's compositions succeed as tributes to living, breathing people - even if usually ones that live in cultures far away and far different from our own. By shining a spotlight on what so many of us refer to - with more than a little arrogance - as the Third World, Cockburn begins to tear down the roadblock that prevents otherwise admirable people from tackling injustice in a direct, self-sacrificing fashion. This track marries a beautiful and gentle melody with universal truths regarding the commonalities that should be bringing us together instead of tearing us apart: "You rub your palm on the grimy pane in the hope that you can see." Don't we all, one way or the other?
Cockburn turns to environmentalism for this standout tune from his final album of the '80s, 1988's Big Circumstances. The results are just as scathing, humane and dead-on accurate here as on any of this artist's more personal compositions. Cockburn uses language with furious restraint, communicating opinions and assessments that become nearly impossible to ignore through his eyes. If there's ever been a more shatteringly poetic comment on wildlife habitat destruction than this one, for example, I surely haven't heard it: "Busy monster eats dark holes in the spirit world, Where wild things have to go to disappear forever." Cockburn has a gift for defending the sacred, for him a highly inclusive term.