Long regarded as Bruce Cockburn's finest moment on record, Humans, issued in 1980, is easily the most revealing of his tomes as well. This Rounder reissue is fully remastered and contains one bonus track, a live reading of the album's opener, "Grim Travellers." Cockburn's marriage had fallen apart, he'd moved from the country to a gritty inner-city section of Toronto called Cabbagetown, and he'd begun to explore in earnest the reggae rhythms that had underscored his hit single "Wondering Where the Lions Are" from Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws. The record of a restless travelogue that has become his stock in trade as a wandering observer, activist, and minstrel with deep wanderlust, Humans is the result of great turmoil and pain, and reveals Cockburn's musical, spiritual, and emotional worldview as all in flux. The record opens with the hard truth of global mercenaries in "Grim Travellers," a shimmering beauty of a song with a dubby bassline and jazzed-out Fender Rhodes piano. This is Cockburn's first issued song in his documentary style, complete with rich metaphorical images of horror and truth and the beauty on their nether sides. "Rumours of Glory" is straight-up reggae. It grooves and rocks steady, with a bubbling bassline punching up the front line. Lyrically the song offers a new kind of mystical attraction for Cockburn, one rooted in the crust of everyday life: "You see the extremes of what humans can be/In that distance/Some tensions are born/Energy surging, like a storm/You plunge your hand in/You draw it back, scorched/Beneath, it's shining like gold/But better...." A beautiful backing chorus that sounds like the I-Threes croons the tune to a close.
There is real darkness and anguish here, too. On "You Get Bigger as You Go," a relationship separates as the world comes apart in front of the protagonist's eyes as he looks out the window; acoustic guitars, violins, and tom-toms usher in the tough truth of a new day. The album's best travel song, "How I Spent My Fall Vacation," talks about the tensions of traveling in a beautiful but dangerous world; it's followed by "Tokyo," a darkly ironic account of a terrible accident witnessed by the protagonist while visiting. The album closes with a low-key manifesto in "The Rose Above the Sky." It's an affirmation of faith in the darkness, of waiting for God in the heart of loss and uncertainty. Graced by acoustic guitars fingerpicked softly and painted by keyboard washes, it grows in tension and texture, becoming an anthem by its end. Humans is universal in its confusion and hard-won willingness to endure without seeking creature comforts or easy answers. Its musical and lyrical adventure would be a watermark for any artist; for Cockburn it became the first step to musical and poetic freedom. It sounds as harrowing, beautiful, and ethereal 20-plus years later as it did when it was first issued, and offers a uniquely universal message for seekers of personal, social, and spiritual truth. This is the one to start with. It is also the one to end with.