REVIEW: Cowboy Junkies – The Wilderness
Cowboy Junkies – The Wilderness
On The Wilderness, Cowboy Junkies bring their four-album Nomad Series to a stunning end with one of their finest records to date. The band has always been at their best when the music and songwriting dance together like two lost souls clinging to a shadow of hope. Lay It Down (1996) and At The End of Paths Taken (2007) are two Cowboy Junkies albums that strike that perfect balance. The Wilderness delivers an equally powerful experience with a distinct tone and sound that only Cowboy Junkies can conjure up.
The Wilderness opens with “Unanswered Letter”; a song written in the wake of Canadian singer-songwriter John Bottomley’s suicide last April. The voice of Margo Timmins sings above a swirling mix of bowed bass amidst a splash of cymbals. Just as you begin to settle into the twisted atmosphere, the song is sucked through a rabbit hole and the band kicks in led by the clean sound of Michael Timmins on guitar. In 1998, the band pushed their sound as big as they could on Miles From Our Home and that experience is still paying dividends on songs like this. There is liveliness to the new songs that never feel cluttered, where every note that floats by feels essential.
After 2010’s distortion drenched Sing In My Meadow, the gentle, sparse tracks that form the heart of The Wilderness feel even more fragile in their beauty. “We Are The Selfish Ones” quotes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and turns the mirror of reflection onto the construction of art by the songwriter. Songwriter Michael Timmins writes a song about Michael Timmins writing a song and pulls it of without any self-indulgence, as if he is even more surprised than us by where these songs come from. A song that floated through the occasional set list over the years, “Angels In the Wilderness” finally finds its place on record. Uncertainty and the resigning of one’s self to the doubt at the center of our existence that forms the heartbeat of The Wilderness is summed up here – “are there angels in the wilderness / I don’t know / I have my doubts but if you say so.”
Throughout his career, Michael Timmins has found the words to describe the little moments in a relationship that actually carry the most significance. On the acoustic “I Let Him In”, he sketches it all out perfectly and we’re left not with endearing couplets about love but the realization that – “there are no rhymes to do you justice.” On “Damaged From the Start”, a tattered relationship finds common ground in its past – “Let’s just sit here a little bit longer with these bruised and battered hearts/Let’s just say they were damaged from the start.” In accepting the slow decay of life, the problems that come with it can be set-aside for just a few moments. As a singer, Margo Timmins can express the emotion of that moment better than anyone. Even when singing from the viewpoint of a dying man on “The Confession of George E”, she delivers every word as if she’s lived it.
The Wilderness ends with a smile on “Fuck, I Hate the Cold” as they detail their journey as a band, and siblings, from childhood in Montreal to life in Toronto to trying to make it in New York City to the countless hours spent touring the USA. The music swings with a groove the E Street Band would envy filtered through a distinctly Canadian sense of humor. Beneath all the dead lovers and broken hearts that dot the landscape of their career, there’s just enough of a smile in the delivery to keep their music from actually living up to the depressing label that is often attached to their work.
In 2010, Cowboy Junkies set out to complete four albums in eighteen months and titled it the Nomad Series. The first in the series, Renmin Park, pushed the band into new lands both musically and thematically as songwriter Michael Timmins illustrated his experience living in China. In 2011, the band released a tribute to the late Vic Chesnutt with Demons and an electric, psychedelic romp with Sing In My Meadow. All three albums captured a different slice of what Cowboy Junkies do best to form a greater whole. With this final chapter, all the elements come together to form the most complete work in the Nomad Series. The Wilderness stands tall as one of the first significant releases of 2012 and is worthy of discussion when the Best Of lists begin flooding the blogosphere in ten months.
The band is having a listening party on their website February 23rd and will stream the entire album all day at no cost.