Jon Brooks has an incredible ability to tell intensely personal stories with huge lessons: parables, in other words. His latest CD, Delicate Cages, demonstrates this with full force and a bold but simple theory: life is a series of cages largely built by fear, and love is the only tool we have to live with it. Lyrically this theme is obvious from the title of the record, Delicate Cages, taken from a Robert Bly poem: “Taking the hands of someone you love, You see they are delicate cages”. Bly’s sentiment not only lends a title but rings throughout all these songs. Along with Brooks’ trademark gravelly voice, Delicate Cages features his awesome guitar playing including a slapping technique, which coaxes a syncopated beat from the guitar while also holding chords. In a live setting, Brooks stomps his big boots on the floor, making for a mesmerizing performance.
Some of the songs refer expressly to cages. “Cage Fighter” is about a pay-for-blood pugilist and the seedy world of that business. Brooks recounts in detail the hopes and fears of the dark world of a cage fighter. The song perhaps best illustrates the record’s theme: the cage fighter finds a love for his opponent in the cage, born out of mutual respect and tension. The cage of course is both
a physical enclosure and a metaphor. But the genius of this song, and the record as a whole, is the recognition that cages are inevitable and sometimes necessary: for the cage fighter, “I wish I was still in the cage where I loved more than I feared.” In fact, when the cage fighter returns to a “normal” life, he finds himself in a factory cage.
The explicit cage theme resurfaces in “There Are Only Cages”, which also features the guitar beat and a light banjitar. The last songbefore a lovely piano only reprise of “Because We’re Free”, this track lays out the theme expressly: “There’s a cage of freedom we have, dear, and this cage of freedom is love”. Contradictory? Maybe, but Brooks revels in thoughtful lyrics which challenge the listener. Philisophically he is simply recognizing that we are always enclosed by something, which we often choose. Brooks uses a nice technique on this and other tracks, with the insertion of the word “dear” throughout the song, clearly indicating that its wisdom is being passed to a loved one. This is, of course, reminiscent of Springsteen’s use of “sir” when speaking to the establishment, and it’s use is just as effective. Carrie Elkin’s background vocals adds a special touch to the song.
The question of which cage to choose is taken up expressly in the opening track, “Because We’re Free”. Here Brooks confronts the age old question of why evil exists in the world: set to a mellow guitar melody, with a crying violin and Brooks’ most gentle version of his voice, the song conjures up images of horror:
“I saw the earth open up under a satisfied sky.
I saw the homes not flooded shrivel up in fire.
I saw them loot all the corpses and rape all the wives.
I saw the cops shoot themselves; the law fall on its knives.”
Brooks has never been a “we have to do x” type of songwriter. His message lies in exploring the human condition, and he leaves us to choose our own path. In this song, Brooks makes the point that we have choices, and the biggest choice is between love and fear. In the midst of recounting so many horrors, many caused by human kind, Brooks adds “I saw the people choosing fear ’cause they wouldn’t choose love.” This is one of the horrors too. But there is a glimpse of hope: “Yes, there is hope for this world, for this world there is hope….because, my dear, because we’re free”. Again, Brooks doesn’t tell you what to do with your freedom, but the implication is clear: we cause horror, and we can change that.
There’s a handful of more personal or localized songs on this record as well. “Fort McMurray” features the wonderful background vocals of Lynn Miles, and describes the difficulties in the regular exodus from the East Coast (Harbour Grace) to oil rich Fort McMurray (and back), where people and money flow like water. No cages here? Oh yes – the economies of east and west, as Brooks describes it, and of course the cage of a small community in the east and an oil town in the west.
“Hudson Girl” is a lovely tune presumably about Jon’s wife, who is compelled to leave Quebec with her family as a girl due to the language politics of that province and Bill 101 specifically. Set to rural Quebec fiddle style, the song offers touching accounts of Brooks’ courtship (Hudson Girl has “Red hair, green eyes, shyer than a first sung song…”), but also illustrates in many ways the cage that Quebec had become. But even escaping that cage leaves you in another in the suburbs of Toronto. Brooks also sweetly illustrates breaking out of his own cage of loneliness, when he meets his Hudson Girl. Love works.
The Cage Fighter returns in “Madeline”, a tender song for the fighter’s daughter about family, love and life. Filled with a lilting beat and light picking, the song opens with key advice for “dear Maddie”: “If we have loved we have lived long”. It continues with wisdom for the young one, especially concerning the cage of loss and sadness when a loved one leaves.
Another real cage finds its place in “Visiting Day”, about a prisoner longing for a loved one. The cage is more than physical, as the prisoner laments the loss of his sweetheart’s loving touch, and resents how a “‘good memory’ goes bad on visiting day”. The prisoner here made a choice, as the lyrics suggest he took the fall for a botched robbery, letting his girl stay free. Here love takes on a different role in the cage.
Perhaps the most compelling songs on the record are based on true stories. “Son of Hamas” tackles the Israeli occupation of Palestine – a physical, spiritual and psychological cage for the Palestinians. This cage will not work in the end, however persistent. More seriously, the cage also spawns other cages of fear as violence begets violence:
“Now, we can cage a people; We can cage a man.
But we cannot cage all that he understands.
There’s a martyr waiting list.
Shahid: we are witness.”
Brooks repeats throughout the song, in a question that is not rhetorical: “How can we hear amid deafening times, love whisper the truth?” I interpret this not as doubt but as surprise: in spite of what happens in the Middle East, this hope is still being held out. In fact the song features an upbeat guitar melody with lovely bass support. It also underscores what many people do to achieve positive change: dance, win Nobel prizes, love your enemy.
Chilling in its narrative, “The Lonesome Death of Aqsa Parvez” tells the tragic, true story of an honour killing in Mississauga. Brooks unapologetically admits the Dylan influence here: from title, track listing, and first and second verse first lines. A good comparison too, for Brooks is one of Canada’s finest songwriters and observers of the human condition. The song is really just a recitation of facts relating to the murder:
“Muhammad Parvez kills poor Aqsa his daughter.
They strangled her in their home on Longhorn Trail.
He had his son, Waqas, go down to the bus stop
to pick up his sister where she waited for a friend.
By 9:00 a.m. the cops had taken Muhammad Parvez.”
Parvez came to Canada to find freedom for him and his family. He was devout and worked hard. And yet the cages from his past came with him, which included honour killing to avenge his daughter’s desire to show her beauty, to feel the freedom of a teenager. As always, Brooks does not criticize or cajol. Facts are laid out and we are left to our own judgment. Is Parvez solely to blame? Is it religion? Is it culture? Is it inevitable? It’s devastating, to be sure: and this is demonstrated in the music: mostly a slow strumming guitar, puntuated but Brooks’ trademark guitar percussion. But as the song builds and leads to the fact of Aqsa’s “higher freedom”, a chilling, off kilter violin sneaks in – eerie and compelling, a drive to our conscience.
The closest Brooks gets to telling us what to do is on “Mercy”. As he puts it in the liner notes, “the key to all the cages”. Here Brooks puts aside all the daring and guts of youth, starting with a list of what he used to admire the most: a melody, poetry, all he thought was profound – the prophets and the saints, and rock concerts. Not that Brooks has given up: he still admires those who speak the truth, who stand up, “all the reckless voices for the voiceless and the man standing in the path of tanks”. But one thing is now clear:
“Ah but now, now that I’m older, it’s mercy that I admire most.”
Brooks leaves the listener in a bit of a quandary: does the recognition of the importance of mercy only come with age? Maybe just for him? Again, listening to these lyrics delivered in Brooks’ weathered voice compels us to think about the import of his message, and decide for ourselves.
John Brooks is an insightful observer of the human condition. Lucky for us, he is also one of Canada’s finest singer/songwriters. His greatest strength is his ability to capture images of the human condition – flashpoints of pain or joy, life or death, banal or profound – in simple, compelling stories. It would be easy to call Jon Brooks a ‘protest singer’ as many of his songs have a political or social component. But I think writing ‘protest’ songs is too easy, certainly for Brooks. Instead, he builds a moral or political puzzle for each of us – and then lets the listener to solve it. Sure, the ‘right’ answer is usually obvious, but Brooks is too faithful to the individual conscience to tell you.
Brooks is also an excellent musician – the guitar is used in many capacities, including the wonderful percussion present in some of these songs which is awe-inspiring when seen live. If you want some of the best songwriting we have in this country get yourself acopy of Delicate Cages. Jon Brooks also tours a lot – you can find dates and plenty of other information on his website.
by David Yazbeck