The Cowboy Junkies have been a consistently perplexing source of music for over two decades. From album to album, the music finds its breath in the shadows of rock, folk, blues, post-punk, alt-country, and pop. It’s an endlessly interesting catalog that explores new textures and themes while somehow always sounding like the same band that cut a low-fidelity collection of blues covers in their garage in 1986.
Last year, the band released Renmin Park, volume one of their four part Nomad Series. The album blended ambient recordings of China’s overwhelming din with the band’s most adventurous playing to date to create a work that captures the love and fear of life in a foreign land. On volume two, the band shifts their attention to Georgia and the music of Vic Chesnutt. The eleven Chesnutt covers that make up Demons are a fitting tribute recorded by a band well suited to handle his macabre sense of humor that teeters between hopelessness and laughter, often in a single verse.
Vic Chesnutt’s songwriting never lacked for honesty. His life unfolded in his music in a way that was often unsettling. His life performances often elicited a swinging pendulum of emotions from the audience who could find him grating and transcendent in the same moment. Much like Townes Van Zandt, his extraordinary music is most appreciated by other artists who understand the perfect realization of emotion in his work. In 1996, Sweet Relief II was released and Vic’s star briefly burned with R.E.M., Cracker, Garbage, and Mary Margaret O’Hara providing memorable covers of his earliest songs. It brought some long overdue attention to his work and helped offset his mounting medical expenses brought on my a car accident in 1983 that broke his neck and left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His career would slide back under the radar after a brief stint on a major label but each new album managed to find an audience.
After hearing Chesnutt’s West of Rome, Cowboy Junkies ventured to Vic’s hometown of Athens, GA to record 1996’s Lay It Down. The album remains a high water mark in their career both musically and lyrically. The band would go on to tour with Chesnutt several times and he joined them in Toronto in 2007 for the Trinity Revisited project. The seeds for a Junkies/Chesnutt project were planted during Revisited but time ran out on the idea. On Demons, Cowboy Junkies turn the lost opportunity into a beautiful overview of Chesnutt’s career. In doing so, the band digs deeper into their own music and unearths a sound that recalls The Band’s finest work.
“Wrong Piano” opens the album and immediately dispenses any notion that Cowboy Junkies are playing it safe on Demons. The thick fuzz of Michael Timmins’ guitar rides atop a droning organ and transforms Chesnutt’s acoustic original from Is The Actor Happy? into a driving rocker that maintains the loose spirit of Chesnutt’s best recordings. There was never a certainty of direction when Vic played and the band manages to sustain that spirit of adventure in larger arrangements.
Slow and dark, “West of Rome” spins a web of alcoholism and lonely masturbation in a motel. Much like the original, the music provides minimal adornment to the lyrics and leaves singer Margo Timmins alone to sort through the emptiness. The setting remains the same on “Square Room” (from The Salesman and Bernadette); another hopeless tale of a suicidal alcoholic “chasing rum with rum” while “shivering and homesick.” The task of capturing these emotions falls on Margo Timmins and she does so with a tender sense of resignation.
Capturing some of the unusual tics in Chesnutt’s work would be impossible but Cowboy Junkies do not shy away from his most challenging material. On “Supernatural”, the intentional disagreement of “it weren’t supernatural” casts a mysterious glow over the proceedings. Rising to a falsetto and turning words into elongated syllables of sadness that dance with a clarinet, “We Hovered With Short Wings” is one of Chesnutt’s most eclectic compositions. The Junkies follow it closely, with a clarinet tip toeing over shuffling jazz and Chesnutt’s own voice joining their chilling arrangement.
On 2009’s At The Cut, Chesnutt’s voice and resolve sounded strong when he declared “oh death, I’m not ready” on “Flirted With You All My Life” but only months later, he was gone. Cowboy Junkies strike all the right chords with a performance that breaks through any tragic irony. Margo Timmins’ voice soars towards the heavens and the music swings in celebration of Vic Chesnutt’s life. Before he left this world, Townes Van Zandt wrote a song for Cowboy Junkies and sang “there’s a hole in heaven where some sin slips through.” After sketching out all his demons in song, Chesnutt found that hole and will be waiting on the other side to play more songs when we arrive.