The Phantom Tollbooth

Artist: Bruce Cockburn
Label:  Myrrh Records/Columbia Records, 1993
Time: 57:31 / 15 songs

As a child, Bruce Cockburn received from his father a home-made book, a collection of Christmas carols. Many of those songs appear on Cockburn's 1993 album, Christmas, to which he adds some weird and wonderful songs he has learned since childhood, and an original composition.

There are several Christmas standards on the album. Cockburn performs "Adeste Fidelis" (O Come, All Ye Faithful) and " J oy to the World" as simple acoustic guitar solos. Cockburn sings Sam Phillip's arrangement of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," which transposes the song into a minor key, highlighting the lyrics, especially those of the later, seldom sung verses. Ms. Phillips sings harmony. The arrangement of "Silent Night" takes the song at a faster than normal tempo, but loses nothing of the reverence.

In addition, Cockburn sings several slightly less well known songs and one song of his own. As one would expect, Cockburn doesn't limit himself to songs in English and includes the original French version of "Angels We Have Heard on High." More surprisingly, he also sings "Riu Riu Chiu," in the original Spanish over finger-picked guitars and violin echoing the melodic lines. Even more intriguing is "Iesus Ahatonia," a song in the Huron (Native American) language penned by a J esuit missionary in the 1600's. To the song's plaintive melody, Cockburn's arrangement adds Hugh Marsh's fiddle textures and chimes. Cockburn's only original, "Shepherds," recounts the story of Christ's birth in
Cockburn's own poetic style:

But the real fun of the album is in the weird and wonderful songs with which Cockburn fills out the album. "Down in Yon Forest," with its archaic lyrical themes and song form, represents the weird; Cockburn's liner notes rightly describe it as a contender for the title of spookiest Christmas carol ever. "Early on One Christmas Morn" represents the wonderful. It is a song from the late 1920's that Cockburn heard on an anthology of early gospel tunes. This rollicking gospel tune features piano, and what sounds like a mandolin even though the liner notes don't mention a mandolin player.

The variety on this album, especially in the mix of familiar songs in unfamiliar musical settings and unfamiliar songs, makes Bruce Cockburn's Christmas something fresh, to be listened to actively rather than put into a CD player as background music.

Chris Parks (11/6/98)

Today's lesson is on the blessing of Bruce Cockburn's Christmas.  This hallowed album has become my most-often played favorite of the season for several reasons. First of all, I don't need the snowy month of December to roll around to have an excuse to play it--it's good all year round. Cockburn's music is never schmaltzy, stagnant or superficial. As a guitar player, the man is one of the planet's best kept secrets, and demonstrates his finger-picking skill tastefully throughout this album. His back-up band also provide a sound that is gentle and warm here, playing with incomparable skill and effectiveness. Among the mostly acoustic-focused arrangements, there is plenty of Cockburn's trademark variety in pacing and playing, which creates an album that is at all times enjoyable, ranging from moody and reverent to upbeat and giddy.

Secondly, Cockburn's creative choices are appealing. Many of these songs are obscure, ranging from old Spanish hymns to Medieval English carols, and to resurrect them from some dusty monastery might seem a bit pretentious to some, but in Cockburn's hands these songs gain new life. For example, Cockburn appropriately turns the spiritual "Go Tell It on the Mountain" into a down home hoe-down and a rollicking act of bonafide worship.

Which brings me to the third and final point of this sermonette: every single one of these songs is about Jesus, the babe born in the stable to bring light and life to the world. No happy Frosty. No Decking the Halls. No mistletoe, and Santa Baby please come home, and absolutely no Santa Claus and no sap. Just Jesus, plain and simple, honored creatively by lyrical focus and superior musicianship. This is Christmas down by the church in the hearts of humankind, not via the mall dipping into the pocketbooks.

In conclusion, congregation, this album not only honors the Christ Child, but it never fails to create a joyful mood encouraging the requisite reflection and rejoicing at advent. Cockburn's Christmas is great art in praise of the greatest Artist. Follow a star to your nearest record store and get this one. Receive now the benediction:  Go in peace, for the Prince of Peace has come to Earth to bring joy to the world!

By Steven Stuart Baldwin (11/11/98)