Speechless, Bruce Cockburn's first foray into completely instrumental territory, is proof in the pudding that you can teach an old dog new tricks. There are 15 tracks here, the vast majority of which are redos of tracks from Cockburn's catalog. But given their treatment -- many of them done as solo guitar pieces -- the dearth of new material doesn't even matter. In fact, one could venture to say that these feel like altogether new pieces. Cockburn is a master guitarist; he often interweaves jazz, blues, country, and folk styles into his cross-genre songs. Here he shines, pure and simple. "Train in the Rain" (anyone notice how many of his songs are about trains and travel?) touches on Leo Kottke and Peter Lang; "Water into Wine" utilizes flamenco stylings while crossing into Gypsy jazz chords à la Charlie Byrd. A new work, "Elegy," kisses the modalities of "Greensleeves" while creating itself as a piece that evokes both absence and memory. "Rouler Sa Bosse" from Salt, Sun and Time juxtaposes Cockburn's six-string against Jack Zaza's clarinet, and becomes a straight-up gently swinging jazz tune. The set also includes "Rise and Fall," a sought-after trio track that was previously available only in Japan. Cockburn's steel-string is accented by his playing of bells, George Koller on bass, and drummer, Ben Riley! The new version of "When It's Gone, It's Gone" showcases an entire band that includes Booker T. Jones on organ and Edgar Meyer on bass, and is the only electric tune on the set. Another new work, "The End of All Rivers," is a multi-tracked tune that has Cockburn playing not only guitar but Tibetan bowl, a Navajo flute, and a baritone guitar, which are all threaded though the melody as a digital delay marks time with his standard acoustic. It's spooky, elegiac, and utterly beguiling. The set ends with a down-home solo read of the title track from Sunwheel Dance. The most remarkable thing about Speechless is that, although it lies firmly in its own subcategory in Cockburn's catalog, it remains, despite the improvisation and textures, a recording of songs. The composer's need to establish that fact even in abstraction and extrapolation is commendable. Speechless is not only accessible -- it's downright beautiful, poetic, and seductive.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek