BRUCE COCKBURN'S sterling guitar- picking and his literate lyrics have made him a star in his native Canada, Toronto's version of Richard Thompson. Cockburn's new album, "Stealing Fire," continues his departure from introspective folk-rock; he's toughened up his music with a tense funk bottom and his lyrics with an unsparing political edge. More often than not it works, and pushes his career into fertile new territory.

Cockburn's rhythm section plays a taut, nervous funk-rock reminiscent of the new King Crimson, providing his lyrical guitar lines with a counterweight they never enjoyed before. The Christian imagery of earlier albums has been replaced by more earthbound political imagery. Side one of "Stealing Fire" pits poets and lovers against repressive forces, with a marvelous tension reflected in the music.

The album's last three songs, which praise Nicaragua's Sandinistas and El Salvador's guerrillas, resulted from Cockburn's trip to Central America in early 1983. Though they suffer a bit from uncritical infatuation with revolution, they are filled with poetic detail that should provide North Americans with a new perspective on that region. BRUCE COCKBURN -- "Stealing Fire" (Gold Mountain GM 80012); appearing Sunday at the Wax Museum.