Most of what we know about present Baghdad will be from news reports. I felt, though, that the third section of David Mitchell’s wonderfully ambitious ‘Bone Clocks’ novel was probably giving me a different,more incisive glimpse into life there; and I feel something the same about this song – that both lyrically and in its sound-collage, it’s conveying something movingly authentic about life in that ravaged city.
If you read my earlier Bruce blog (After the Rain/Creation Dream) you may remember I promised a Part 2 to my Bruce story. Here it is. I met someone in a Jonatha Brooke concert who, in our chat, shared that she’d come to appreciate Jonatha through her association with Bruce (the ‘War’ track?); she’d been practically a ‘Cockburn completist’ she said, but she couldn’t rate any of his more recent albums (She was talking ‘Charity of Night’ onwards, I think.)
I realized then that I was far more indiscriminate about my acceptance of Cockburn’s work because – and you’ll need to see the previous Cockburn essay to get this –it was more of a case that I’d ‘adopted him’ than simply got attracted to some things rather than others. With each new album, it’s a bit like he’s come home from school with another new crayoned picture and each one of them I put up on the fridge and love, because it’s Bruce.
Ha. That sounds slightly pathetic, and it’s perhaps overstating the case, because obviously I can’t fully lay aside my critical faculties, and the part of me that responds appreciatively or otherwise, to song. So I suppose the fact is: I also do find so much to enjoy in ‘later Cockburn’. Having seen him in concert very recently, too, I feel like in some ways there’s even something of a growing strength in his compositions. Certainly in the maturity and confidence of his performance-presence.
Take this song – and I’m listening to it right now as I write – it feels like a major oeuvre. Based on his extensive travelling, BC’s songs have often reflected impassioned responses to various trouble-spots, highlighting and challenging examples of social and political injustice. For many of these songs (I’m thinking of the 80s and 90s especially) he’s chosen a more brooding monologue-type structure, more or less spoken verses with sung refrains – and no less powerful for that. But this song is melodic right through – verse and chorus – and the content, after some intriguingly cinematic orchestration in the intro, is direct from the word go – ‘Everything’s broken in the birthplace of law..’
We get snapshot images of the war-torn ruinous state of a city with such a richly historic culture. These elements are reflected throughout the song’s sounds – eventually we’re aware of a clashing, battering background rhythm, cumulatively insistent throughout the five-minute song, but over this – and unusual for BC – lush, melodic strings in the introduction and returning to sweep elegantly alongside the plucked guitar and percussion in the chorus. ‘This is Baghdad’ intones the repetitious refrain, underpinned by these musical elements – and the result is one of the most ‘filmic’ pieces he’s ever produced. Alongside these cameos of devastation and deprivation (‘Not enough morphine and not enough gauze/Firefight in darkness like snapping of jaws’) there’s a sense of probing reportage ( the ‘blast’ in verse 3 – its ‘radiant energy’ and resultant fatalities), and the final verse is a bold challenge to US accountability – ‘Carbombed and carjacked and kidnapped and shot/How do you like it, this freedom we brought/We packed all the ordnance but the thing we forgot/Was a plan in case it didn’t turn out quite like we thought’…
Bruce takes his songwriting seriously and that’s another reason to love him. These are songs with integrity, asking questions.