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November 1999 Pick of the Month

Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu 
Artist: Bruce Cockburn 
Label: Rykodisc 
Length: 11 tracks/62:39 minutes 


Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu finds Bruce Cockburn relying on his strengths and taking a breather from the dark imagery and intense subject matter of 1997's The Charity of Night. This album has a lighter tone, rather like the mix of blues, folk, and rock on Nothing But a Burning Light

Several songs feature spoken-word passages, which he seemed to rediscover on Charity of Night, and the lyrics focus on the search for hope in a failing world...not a new theme for Bruce. Several deal with intimate relationships of friends and lovers, and how the joy of relationships can reveal hope while the world around seems to be burning and collapsing. "Look How Far" is a standout, telling of two friends on a rooftop sharing glasses of wine and marveling at how the setting sun's light illuminates the glasses so that they seem to "glow from within." 

"Mango," Bruce has said, is his hymn to feminine sexuality, and it sounds incredible. I'm convinced from the participation of Cowboy Junkies' Margot Timmins that she and Bruce should continue to work together. Their voices are a marvelous match. Bruce actually lets her take the spotlight for a while during a rare and glorious cover track--"Blueberry Hill"--and then he steps in to do some steamy electric soloing. 

But for the most part, this is an acoustic guitar venture, with the edges filled in with enthusiastic rhythms. You get the feeling that the music grew out of evening jam sessions and the lyrics out of his travel journals. There are copious references to personal conversations, to views from windows and rooftops, to specific places and times...even what was playing on the radio at the moment (Superchunk!). There's standard (and thus excellent) Cockburn fare like "Last Night of the World," which reminds me of the simple melody of "Dream Like Mine." And then there are more ambitious tracks, like the long poem of "Use Me While You Can," and perhaps his most sonically experimental track thus far--"Let the Bad Air Out." You may remember that Cockburn played "Let the Bad Air Out" on tour frequently over the past few years; its manifestation here is very, very different. Instead of taking the playful tongue-in-cheek rock-n-roll approach that he did on stage, now it's a dreamy, complicated, jazzy number with overlays of whispers and screams...very interesting and strange. 

The Charity of Night showed that Bruce Cockburn is still capable of taking great leaps artistically, as a poet and a musician. He seemed to be saying, "Twenty albums, yeah, I know, but my best work is still to come."   Having said that, Breakfast in New Orleans... is an album for a warm summer night with friends, where we can smile and enjoy each other's company, knowing that the turning of the millennium gives us nothing new to fear, and that our hope is in something stronger than the darkness that chokes the world. He sounds renewed, refreshed, even younger than he did last time around, slower to anger, like he's really enjoying what he's doing. That's good. I sure enjoy what he's doing.

Jeffrey Overstreet  9/22/99 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Green Lake Reflections web page and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists.  He has been published in Christianity and the Arts Magazine, The New Christian Herald, and AngliCan Arts Magazine, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association.  You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com.

A long time ago in another life I had a girlfriend who exclaimed that Cockburn sounded like a sick cow. Granted, his husky baritone is a far cry from her beloved Rick Astley's perfection, but please... She's history, and I continue to listen to Cockburn's albums, which never resemble the melancholy mewls of moo-moo land. But I can't help but wonder if she'd like this one. Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu is Cockburn's most playful album ever. A mature work that slaps up bits of the requisite, insightful political and spiritual commentary alongside more whimsical moments. The album begins, for example, with "When You Give It Away," featuring lines such as:

    Slid out of my dreams like a baby out of the nurse's hands
    on to the hard floor of day
    I'd been wearing O.J.'s gloves and I couldn't get them off
    It was too early but I couldn't sleep
    Showered and dressed and stepped out into the heat
    The parrot things on the porch next door
    announced my arrival on Chartres Street
    with their finest rendition of squealing brakes...

Along the same lines as this wry bit of contemporary-peppered wit, Cockburn offers a number of other songs with a lighter touch, including a rare cover version of "Blueberry Hill." The second song, "Mango," sweetly dishes up the zesty fruit in a sexually-charged parody of Adam and Eve's temptation in Eden, and "Let the Bad Air Out" takes government accesses to task in a playful, but forceful manner:

    Traitors in high places, take my money, tell me lies
    Take a walk past parliament, it smells like something died
    They ask for trust, but somehow I've got serious doubts
    Open up the window, let the bad air out.

Yet, despite the album's more jovial tone, Cockburn also offers his trademark contemplative bits in other songs like "The Embers of Eden," which use the images of the Great Wall of China and scorched rain-forests (the only two visible evidences of mankind from orbit) as metaphors for a troubled relationship.

Cockburn's official twenty-fifth release finds him still experimenting and tinkering with his sound: a unique patchwork quilt of poetic reflections and jazz-infused, finger-picking blues and folk. The tinkly chimes of The Charity of Night are replaced here with world-beat rhythms, but overall the sound is less thick and more straightforward, focusing on loads of impressive guitar playing. Taken as a whole, this album does recall moments of his last one, especially with the spoken word poetic parts, as well as the more introspective work of his seventies material, resulting in a little something for everyone. Only the beautiful instrumental "Deep Lake" seems quietly out of place, dampening the album's momentum.

After twenty-five albums and about thirty years of recording, artists earn the right to do whatever they want. Gratefully, far from being alienated by this work, Cockburn fans are again treated to substantial musical art from an artist who is far from going out to pasture.

Steven S. Baldwin   10/15/99


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