Even after 40 years in music, it seems there's no subject singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn can't handle. That range is evident on Small Source of Comfort, Cockburn's latest album and the 31st of this career.
"I can't imagine my life any other way than it's been," Cockburn tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen. "I like to think that if it hadn't gone as well as it has, if I wasn't able to make a living off of playing music, I would still be playing the music. But, of course, I wouldn't likely have had the opportunity to travel, and a lot of the places have inspired songs."
One of his most recent trips inspired a song that made its way on to Small Source of Comfort. Cockburn followed his brother, a doctor in the Canadian army, to Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2009. He says his view of the troops was instantly empathetic.
"There are all these young people there," he says, "and they kind of felt like my kids."
On his way to Kandahar, Cockburn made a stop at Camp Mirage, a base run by the Canadian forces in Dubai that served as a staging area for flights to and from Afghanistan. As he waited to board his flight, a plane landed carrying the bodies of two Canadians who'd been killed that day.
"We became part of the ramp ceremony," Cockburn says.
In "Each One Lost," he recounts the experience: "Here come the dead boys / Moving slowly past the pipes and prayers and strained commanding voices / Each one lost is a vital part of you and me."
Cockburn says his job is merely to sing about what's true to him, and while that truth can be tragic, it can also be funny. Another song, "Call Me Rose," is written from the point of view of Richard Nixon, reincarnated as a single mother living in the projects.
"I woke up one morning with this song in my head," Cockburn says, "and the opening line of the song is, 'My name was Richard Nixon, only now I'm a girl.' "
The idea was a reaction to an effort he'd observed in the 2000s to rehabilitate Nixon's image. He says he found himself wondering "what it would take to actually rehabilitate Richard Nixon — never mind his image, the real guy."
Small Source of Comfort ends on an unexpected note with "Gifts," a song Cockburn originally wrote in 1968. At the time, his manager Bernie Finkelstein suggested they include it on his first album. Cockburn told Finkelstein he would save the song — for his last album.
The songwriter is coy about about what his decision to finally release the song means for his career. Cockburn says Finkelstein was taken aback when he heard the recording for the first time.
"When the song started, he just took a double take right away," Cockburn says. "He turned to me after it was over, and he said, 'Is there anything I should know?' And I said no — it was just in case."