To be perfectly honest, we here at Blabber’n’Smoke were never too aware of Canadian Cockburn until we heard his 2017 album Bone On Bone which is an excellent set of mature and wise songs hewn from folk and blues. The album surprised us as what we had heard of Cockburn previously was his more radio friendly oriented rock from the 1980s where he came across as kind of a fellow traveller to Jackson Browne – similar political views – but Cockburn’s songs weren’t in the same class.
Greatest Hits (1970-2020) is a handy Cockburn companion then for those, like us, who haven’t delved into the man’s back catalogue. Cockburn has chosen the 30 songs (plucked from around 34 albums) himself and they are arranged in chronological order. Oddly, there are only five songs from this century, which is a pity as the elder Cockburn is much more to our taste than the young folkie of the 1970s and the AOR rocker of the 80s. Anyhow, the two discs serve to portray his journey pretty well, both in song and in the accompanying booklet which features portrait pics of him ranging from Warren Zevon lookalike to ear bejewelled new waver and finally the sage elder he now is. The collection also allows Cockburn to demonstrate his early (and longstanding) commitment to topics such as indigenous rights and environmental concerns for which he has been justly recognised receiving several honorary doctorates and honours while, musically, he is the recipient of 13 Juno awards.
The young Cockburn greets us with winsome folk songs (Going To The Country and One Day I Walk) and the Beatles like piano song Musical Friends, all from 1970-71 before heading into the blues on Mama Just Wants To Barrelhouse All Night Long, originally released in 1973 but delivered here as a live performance from 1987. For the remainder of the 70s he’s in troubadour mode, culminating in the mild calypso of Wondering Where The Lions Are but 1980s’ Tokyo introduces a fuller band sound which becomes increasingly slicker as the years progress with The Trouble With Normal featuring unfortunate (fashionable at the time) Fairlight programming. A pity as powerful songs such as If I Had A Rocket Launcher are diluted by the 80s production.
Things look up when T Bone Burnett gets into the producer’s chair in 1990 with Listen For The Laugh given a contemporaneous Dylan like rock’n’roll rumble but it’s another producer, Colin Linden, himself a prodigious Juno Award winner, who seems to have brought out the best of Cockburn over the past two decades. Night Train is an excellent song with Rob Wasserman’s elastic bass reminding one of Joni Mitchell’s forays into folk jazz and Last Night Of The World finds Cockburn almost returning to his roots although now more weathered and more wise. The final seven songs are the Cockburn we discovered via Bone On Bone, a man grown into his songs, somewhat akin to Nick Lowe or John Hiatt, two men who just get more magisterial as they carry on.
Despite our misgivings about the 80s sojourn, Greatest Hits is an impressive introduction to Cockburn’s music, however, we’d recommend that any deeper delve begins with the latter albums. You won’t be disappointed.