BRUCE COCKBURN – Greatest Hits (1970-2020) (True North TND786)

Greatest Hits (1970-2020)With a man like Bruce Cockburn the title Greatest Hits has a certain tongue-in-cheek vibe. Not for him the glamour of the pop charts but there are so many songs that have stood the test of time, songs that fans always hope to hear in a live set. Many of them are included here but Bruce had a hand in the selection so we must imagine that these are some of his favourites, too.

The thirty track double-CD set is arranged chronologically, which is always my preference as it tells the story in the logical way. So we begin with the joyful, acoustic ‘Going To The Country’ – just Bruce and guitar – and that’s followed by a switch to piano for ‘Musical Friends’. Bruce has almost set his stall out but he adds slide guitar for the country-inspired ‘One Day I Walk’.

When I say “chronologically”, I mean in terms of writing, so ‘Mama Just Wants To Barrelhouse All Night Long’ seems out of its time here. It was recorded for his fourth album but this version, with extra musicians, comes from more than a decade later. Bruce Cockburn can be confusing sometimes.

As he used more and more musicians and more involved arrangements we come to what I always think of as Cockburn’s golden period. When I visited Petroglyph Park I had lines from ‘Wondering Where The Lions Are’ in my head. It may be remixing or remastering but songs like ‘Tokyo’, ‘Rumours Of Glory’ and ‘The Coldest Night Of The Year’ sound really fresh. Now we’re really into the classics: ‘The Trouble With Normal’, ‘Lovers In A Dangerous Time’, ‘If I Had A Rocket Launcher’ (my all-time favourite) and ‘Call It Democracy’

The second disc finds us in the late 1980s with three more important songs: ‘Waiting For A Miracle’, ‘Stolen Land’ and ‘If A Tree Falls’. It struck me, listening to these songs, that Cockburn knew the importance of the music in getting his words listened to and he singles out Hugh Marsh for a special mention as composer of ‘Stolen Land’. That said, I thought that he went a bit too commercial as he moved into the 1990s but I kept buying. Listening to these remasters, each one taken out of the context of their original albums, I feel that I should perhaps return to them although some still sound rather too brash to my ears – they were the sound of their time, I suppose, and he pares the accompaniment back for ‘Pacing The Cage’.

Then again, the chunky arrangement of ‘Last Night Of The World’ and the languid swing of ‘Anything Anytime Anywhere’ are just perfect – you just have to go wherever he takes you, sometimes. The millennium arrives with two songs from You’ve Never Seen Everything: ‘Open’ and ‘Put It In Your Heart’, both decorated by Marsh’s violin and both doing more with less. ‘Different When It Comes To You’ is from my favourite of his later albums but it’s topped by ‘Call Me Rose’.

It is impossible to summarise fifty years and thirty-four albums with a double-CD and the best anyone can do is fashion an entertaining set that guides listeners to the originals. In that the producers, including Bruce himself, have succeeded admirably. Everyone will have a song that they would like to have included. Mine is ‘Peggy’s Kitchen Wall’ – I’ll just have to dig out Stealing Fire.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘Wondering Where The Lions Are’ – live and recent: