Song 262: Bruce Cockburn, “The Whole Night Sky” (1997)

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Back in high school, my friend Adam and I were pretty into local radio station WXRV, “The River.” the station is, and was, “adult contemporary,” albeit a kind that included local bands and the occasional up-and-coming “alternative” act. I remember hearing Fountains of Wayne’s first single, “Radiation Vibe,” on WXRV.

It was a pretty weird thing for high school students to be into, a fact that was really hammered home when Adam and I visited the station to do an article about it for our school newspaper. The staff was very cordial, but they clearly didn’t understand why people under 30 were coming to visit them. (Random aside: the best part of our visit happened when we were introduced to the traffic reporter, who was about to give his report from the helicopter. The DJ giving the tour asked how he was doing, and he answered, “Just tryin’ to keep it in my pants.” There was an awkward pause and the DJ said, “Uh, I’ve got a couple high school students here,” to which the traffic guy said, “Oh. Oh! I meant my… Watch. Just trying to keep my watch in my pants.” Sadly, this exchange didn’t make our final draft.)

One of the best things I heard in my couple years of obsessively listening to The River was the Bruce Cockburn song “Pacing the Cage,” which I first heard in the middle of the night, battling insomnia. I loved it, but more importantly, I loved the voice of the guy singing, and his carefully plucked guitar. Who was this guy?

The record featuring “Pacing the Cage” is called The Charity of Night, and it’s great. On first listen, it sounds like yet another guy-with-an-acoustic guitar album. You eventually realize that it has all kinds of shades: a vibraphone here, an electric slide guitar there, all of which makes the record sound like it’s both sleepy and wide awake. Like me when I first heard it, it sounds like it’s up at 3 a.m., wondering what to do with itself.

As much as I still love “Pacing the Cage,” it’s “The Whole Night Sky” I listen to most. The percussion is what gets to me most. The drums are at the forefront, but they’re not overpowering, and those shakers give the track a little ambience, like cicadas chirping near Cockburn’s nightscape. And that’s Bonnie Raitt providing plaintive, but never imposing, slide guitar. I think this song is just gorgeous, and the fact that it’s paired with a gorgeous arrangement shows just how much Cockburn knew what he was doing.

I haven’t heard much else by Bruce Cockburn, mostly because his other records can’t possibly be this good. The Charity of Night is like a beautiful, isolated moment, and I don’t want any other songs or records to cloud it.

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One Comment on “Song 262: Bruce Cockburn, “The Whole Night Sky” (1997)”

  1. Kris Obertas says:

    You owe it to yourself to explore Bruce Cockburn’s catalog more. There are many great songs and moments in there. A fun entry point is the “Humans” album if you want to go further back in time.


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