❉ For all that Cowboy Junkies’ first new recording since 2012 may musically call to mind 1988, it’s very much an album for 2018.
Listening to the Cowboy Junkies’ new album, All That Reckoning, there’s an impulse to say that the record sounds like the past 30 years never happened for the band. Like most glib observations, this isn’t necessarily inaccurate, but it is insufficient. While the group has in many ways been a model of consistency, it would be a mistake to assume that a steady musical approach reflects a lack of imagination rather than a profound confidence in their identity.
Since the 1980s the default adjective for the band has been “meditative”, but there’s always been more to the group’s sound than just that. Ruminative – with its implication of troubles either ahead or behind – is a more apt description. It encompasses both the reflective moments and those where the guitars drive the songs as much as Margo Timmins’ vocals. In any event, the band has remained true to this path since their 1988 breakthrough, The Trinity Sessions.
After three decades The Trinity Session’s success still retains its aura of surprise. With Lou Reed at the height of his MTV respectability, the notion that someone would have success on “modern rock” radio in America with a cover of one of his songs wasn’t especially far-fetched. However, anyone who says they knew it would sound like the Cowboy Junkies’ take on Sweet Jane is either a liar or very selfish with their recreational chemicals. The group’s sound had more in common with “newgrass” than “the Paisley Underground”, let alone power-pop, industrial or any other mainstays of the era’s alternative music.
One the overlooked element in their sound is sensuality. This quality pervades Sweet Jane and so many of their songs that followed and makes All That Reckoning an enticing album even as it poses thorny questions of the heart and soul. For all that the musical approach may call to mind 1988, it’s very much an album for 2018. “So much is going on around us right now and nobody knows where it’s going to end up,” observed songwriter/guitarist Michael Timmins, discussing the group’s mindset when making the album. “Unfortunately, the end result is that fear usually turns to hate and hate is a human emotion that is impossible to predict and control.”
However, amid the expressions of current anxieties is also a willingness to see hope. Even as the song When We Arrive invites listeners to consider “the age of dissolution”, it also recognizes a time of “new ideas taking root”. The advice is simple – “above all else, keep your actions faithful” – an approach that seems quite sensible when the personal and political have become so intertwined.
What stands out most about All That Reckoning, though, is its cascade of mixed emotions, exemplified by Sing Me A Song. The opening lines – “sing me a song about life in America; sing me a song of love” – are just the first steps along a path leading to prayer and rage and a host of other concerns. Nose Before Ear offers an equally stark picture – “so many ways to love you so little time to choose among them; I’ll stick with the ones whose hearts are torn broken.” Connection is key, but the question of which ones to make is unavoidable.
The most striking song in this vein is one that most typifies the musical approach associated with the group. With its low-key arrangement and tactile vocal, Shining Teeth wouldn’t sound out of place on The Trinity Sessions even as its lyrics embody the sense of conflict on display throughout the album. A plea to “share with me the wounds that still haunt you” can quickly give way to fear and anger. “I don’t want to see your shining teeth no more; she screams as I’m backing out the door; I don’t want to see those burned-out empty eyes.”
It’s a powerful moment – all the more so because it prizes empathy over judgment. That choice defines much of the album, especially its epilogue. With simple instrumentation and a lilting melody, The Possessed tells a story of someone finding the devil in plain sight and embracing him anyway but does so with the recognition that it could be any of us.
Critic Greil Marcus once wrote that “to make true political music, you have to say what decent people don’t want to hear.” Most decent people wouldn’t want to be told that their reaction to the devil might be acceptance. By holding that mirror up to all of us – and doing so with such eloquence – the Cowboy Junkies have made All That Reckoning a bold and timely statement on the politics of existence.
❉ Cowboy Junkies – ‘All That Reckoning’ out July 13 via Proper Records. Available to order here.