With the meditative bemusement and ever-changing geographic backdrops of a pilgrim, Bruce Cockburn is arguably at his best when recollecting intense observations in tranquility. His early acoustic-oriented albums explored the uneasy quirkiness of his Christian beliefs with a mason-like sobriety; these themes would, later in his career, flower into world-weary bewilderment with the political song reportage of tracks like "Grim Travelers" and "Nicaragua." (The prevalence of ultra-liberal Jesus freaks might be Canada's most noble social phenomenon.)
But even when setting fiery internal monologues to his modal-tuned fingerstyle guitar licks, Cockburn evokes a curious concreteness: The fractured industrial imagery of "Tokyo," "Silver Wheels," and "How I Spent My Fall Vacation" is so lucid that it feels more like jumbled journalism than its seeming intention as allegory. And the hit "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" is so baldly specific, even in its ersatz third-world rhythms, that it makes one wonder whether the inspiration for the vaguely violent cowboy reggae of "Peggy's Kitchen Wall" was equally empirical.
"The Iris of the World," the leading track from Cockburn's Small Source of Comfort, his first album since 2006, half admits this lyrical tendency. "I have a way with time and space," he sings, not coincidentally after delivering the most satisfying stanza on the record (the line "In the age of global warming, when all things are getting colder" drips Cockburn's trademark sarcasm-for-a-cause). The retreat that follows, however, "…but numbers freak me out," is discouragingly flippant. It's not the admission of weakness or colloquial awkwardness here that feel unconvincing, but the irrelevancy of the confession. Like James Baldwin, Cockburn's writing sharpens as he struggles to remain calm and process potentially crippling intensity into something useful. (This mechanism, too, is what enables nonbelievers to enjoy Cockburn's ecclesiastic musings without guilt; he tempers his knowingly irrational adoration for Christ with the same poetic instinct he uses to discuss his "problems" with the United States's foreign policy.) If and when he finally arrives at exasperated acceptance, as he ostensibly has with the issue of peak oil explored in "Iris of the World," the trenchancy tapers off though: "I'm raw anticipation of our rhythmic rendezvous," he says at the clunky, inexplicably love-struck close.
The remainder of Small Source of Comfort seems similarly numb to the same socio-political landscape that had Cockburn frothing at the mouth and, more famously, kicking at the darkness two decades ago; his humane snapshots are no less vivid now, but he seems unprecedentedly distant from their emotional heft. The choppy, bluesy jangle "Five Fifty-One" features the only verbal confirmation on the album of Cockburn's frustrations with life circa 2011, and even these are crankily corporeal: "Knots in my muscles, too much traffic in my mind," he whines geriatrically. "Call Me Rose" imagines Richard Nixon judiciously reincarnated as a single mom in the projects, but by Jenny Scheinman's final violin dyad, the track has unnecessarily and glibly poked fun at both the dead president and his newfound demographic profile. Cockburn conjures some of his signature directness for "Each One Lost" while paying homage to two Canadian soldiers killed in combat in the Middle East. The non-rhyming lyrics are subtly plaintive if overzealous in their universality; is dying "on your sofa, safe inside your home" really analogous to being struck down "in a mess of flame and shrapnel"? Compared to the mercilessly forsaken detail of "Postcards from Cambodia," however, this is a painfully oblique op-ed.
Cockburn's musicianship remains cheerfully complex despite this verbal sterility. His chord progressions are as pillow-y as James Taylor's, but the studied spontaneity of his guitar and accompanying arrangements often match—or surpass—the restlessness of his lyrics. He has occasionally allowed minor flubs to slip onto final mixdowns for the sake of capturing a genuine moment (toward the end of "Silver Wheels," the drums trip over themselves with overexcitement), and the performances on Small Source of Comfort, produced by Cockburn veteran Colin Linden, possess a virile lack of precision.
Indeed, these imperfectly shaped melodies and textures provide the album's most obvious pleasures. The dreary, stop-and-start tempo of "Radiance" obscures the raggedly erotic tango at its foundation; "Comets of Kandahar," with its jaunty if menacing theme, is the nearest Cockburn comes to articulating palpable fear. It's telling, too, that the most upbeat, carefree tune on the record, "Louis on the Autobahn," turns out, according to the liner notes, to have been inspired by the death of his mother. It's hard to fault Cockburn's mellowed perspective toward the suffering of others; he's more than earned the right to ponder, however wonkily, his own approaching mortality.