No one can accuse Van Morrison and Bruce Cockburn of being lazy...workaholics maybe, but never lazy. Between the two of them, they've released 50 albums over 30 years. On their latest releases, Morrison's The Healing Game and Cockburn's The Charity of Night, both artists mine the familiar stuff that composes life: trials and tribulations; true love; faith (even when it's tenuous); looking backward, forward, and inward. But with those voices and the rich imagery of their lyrics, another roadtrip with them is not a bad journey to take.
First...oh, these two have voices. I saw Morrison perform at the Guinness Irish Fleadh (which is Gaelic for "festival") in June in New York City. At the end of a long, hot, dusty day, surrounded by more sweaty bodies than I care to remember, I watched this unimpressive figure in a cream suit, straw hat, and black sunglasses wander on to the stage. Then he opened his mouth, and everything from a rumbling growl to a soaring lilt drifted over us. I didn’t care anymore that I was covered in a layer of grime; I just wanted to listen to that voice.
Luckily, Morrison’s Spirit-filled voice can be captured as well (and sometimes better) on his recordings. With his trademark fusion of rhythm and blues, jazz, rock, and the customary appearance of uilleann pipes, the music caresses and elevates the singer’s delivery and the songwriter’s words. Contributions from saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis (formerly of James Brown’s horn section); Irish musicians Brian Kennedy, Phil Coulter, and Paddy Maloney (of Chieftains renown); and longtime band member- organist Georgie Fame infuse a soul into the work. And you can tell they’re having fun doing their jobs.
The gentle opening notes of "Rough God Goes Riding" quickly make way for Morrison’s gruff rendering, as the introverted anti-celebrity warns us, "There’ll be no more heroes/They’ll be reduced to zero." Morrison is guilty of occasional self-indulgence, with a few too many references to his struggles with fame.
But then he gets it just right. "Sometimes We Cry" is awfully literal, but the matter-of-fact delivery makes the song sound hopeful, not morose. "Burning Ground" illustrates the search for romantic love and agape, and the satisfaction (sometimes temporary) that comes when you find either—or both. ("And you return to me and you sit on your throne/And you make me feel that I’m not alone/...And I watch you run in the crimson sun/Tear my shirt apart, open up my heart.")
The Healing Game closes with the title track, a hymn that begins with a church organ, features a doo-wop choir, and rises to a sweet crescendo with the hypnotic repetition of the chorus. It may look like a game, but Morrison’s sound makes me believe he takes his healing seriously.
So does Bruce Cockburn. With titles like "Night Train," "The Whole Night Sky," and "The Charity of Night," Cockburn is snooping around in some dark territory. But his voice draws his listeners along. Cockburn wraps his voice around each word, until he abandons singing altogether for his most ominous, just-wait-til-you-hear-this storyteller tone. His singing echoes his guitar playing, which alternates between gentleness and ferocity. Guest performers include Ani DiFranco, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, and Bonnie Raitt, playing a smooth, sultry slide guitar on "The Whole Night Sky."
As with Morrison, sometimes it’s hard to tell if Cockburn’s songs are to his lover or to his God. Images in "Live on My Mind" evoke a sacred ritual or a romantic evening: "Light me like incense in the night/Light me like a candle burning bright." Of course, either path is a struggle, which Cockburn acknowledges on this album, as he finds himself "hanging from this high wire/by the tatters of my faith."
Cockburn doesn’t shrink from the shadows, but he’s not hiding in them either. In "Birmingham Shadows," he maintains his wry phrasing, singing, "At home in the darkness but hungry for dawn/I can only remember scenes, never the stories I live/The good thing about that is it’s easy to forgive."
Fans who know Cockburn’s commitment to human rights in Central America will recognize that passion in "The Mines of Mozambique." Written in Africa in 1995, it paints a painfully vivid portrait of landmine victims, in a place where "night, like peace, is a state of suspension."
"Pacing the Cage" is the album’s most haunting number. The soothing melody belies its sense of frustration with life and one’s own actions, or inaction. Cockburn points the finger at others’ expectations, but just as quickly turns on himself, ultimately acknowledging his own limitations: "Sometimes the best map will not guide you/...Sometimes the road leads through dark places/Sometimes the darkness is your friend." And sometimes you cry.
Cockburn and Morrison both seem to know the darkness should be embraced, because sooner or later it gives way to light. Their new music provides the soundtrack for the dark times, and a celebration of the Light. I hope neither of them gets tired for quite some time.
KIMBERLY BURGE is a free-lance writer who lives and works in Washington, D.C.
The Healing Game. Van Morrison. Polygram, 1997.
The Charity of Night. Bruce Cockburn. Rykodisc, 1996.