The Wilderness by The Cowboy Junkies
By The Cowboy Junkies
(Nomad Series Volume 4)
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
A few years ago, The Cowboy Junkies veered off the major label highway and took a detour down a side route to explore some of the bumpy, pock marked roads that had been beckoning them. It’s not a choice most bands would have made; it wasn’t particularly safe or well advised. This kind of risk never is, but after more than two decades in the game, the band didn’t have much to lose. Musically, they were firing on all cylinders and creating some of the best music of their careers, but albums like the defining ‘Ends of Paths Taken’ went virtually unnoticed by the world at large. The Junkies’ sound was too hard to pin down. Were they a country, rock, grunge, or indie band? Of course, they were all of that and more, but for many of the listeners who were drawn to the band by ‘The Trinity Session’, their breakout album from 1988, the band’s refusal to settle on one particular approach to performing music was confounding rather than exciting or liberating. But, in strictly artistic terms, the Cowboy Junkies have never looked back and their decision to start releasing informal music on their own in the form of the Nomad Series couldn’t have happened at a better time. Whatever losses they may have suffered in financial terms (if any), the artistic benefits of going independent have been easy to hear, for at best the Cowboy Junkies and the mainstream music world have always been a cramped and uneasy fit.
It’s hard to imagine a major label that would be willing to release four albums by almost any band in less than two years, so the Cowboy Junkies didn’t bother trying and found themselves freed from the obligations of a recording contract for the first time in two decades. Rather than negotiate a new deal with a major label, they opted to release music on their own through their Latent Music imprint. This has allowed them to distribute informal and experimental music that defies easy categorization in a series of thematically based albums they title ‘The Nomad Series.’
‘The Wilderness’ is the fourth release of the series and is the one that may find the most favour with their older fans. The first release, ‘Renmin Park’ was an experimental, expressionistic memoir of guitarist, Michael Timmins’ trip to China with his family to adopt his youngest daughter. A mixture of sound collages, musical textures and translated contemporary Chinese songs, ‘Renmin Park’ demanded patience and could be a rewarding – if challenging – listen at times. The next entry, ‘Demons’ was a covers album dedicated to the music of Vic Chestnutt. The band has always had a pronounced dark side and listening to ‘Demons’ it’s easy to hear how comfortable they were surrendering to Chestnutt’s acerbic perspective on the universe as Michael’s crunching guitar and Margo’s voice rise to the challenge of making his music their own.
The third disc in the series, the deceptively titled ‘Sing in My Meadow’ was anything but pastoral as it delved into heavy late 90’s style acid blues sounds. On track after track, Michael Timmins and Jeff Bird literally bathe themselves in very heavy reverb to create the kind of Crazy Horse influenced sonic soup that they obviously love so much. From a strictly musical perspective, ‘Sing in My Meadow’ is the most aurally challenging disc in the series, and to my mind the most rewarding.
After puzzling through the ear splitting solos of ‘Sing in My Meadow’, some of the Cowboy Junkies’ older fans may find the songs on ‘The Wilderness’ something of a relief for more than anything else they’ve released in recent years they evoke the classic sound of their most popular early albums, ‘The Trinity Session’, ‘Caution Horses’ and ‘The Black Eyed Man.’ If the Cowboy Junkies was comprised simply of careerists, they would have locked themselves into this sound long ago and kept their noses higher above the pop music waters than they have, but that would have been against their exploratory spirit. The songs on ‘The Wilderness’ are informed by and better for the experimentation that has always been the band’s stock and trade.
Thematically, ‘The Wilderness’ holds together better as an album as it moves from song to song than any of the other releases in the series. In many ways it is an extension of or sequel to the ideas explored on ‘The End of Paths Taken’ with the title seeming to refer to the isolation and exploration of unfamiliar territory that one experiences in middle age. The camaraderie and shared values of early adulthood have faded as these new songs explore the solitudes of parenthood and shifting priorities and obligations. A lot of fatigue and frustration is expressed with lyrics that ponder the significance of achieving certain goals and overcoming obstacles only to realize that there are a still a lot of years left to live with no promise that anything will ever become easier. Songs like ‘Unanswered Letter’ and ‘Damaged From The Start’ - with its melody reminiscent of Neil Young’s ‘See the Sky about to Rain’ - blend electronica textures with rich acoustic sounds that both honour and extend the trademark Cowboy Junkies sound to fit perfectly with the darker, more mature subject matter of their new material. The expansive ‘Confession of Georgie E’ and ‘The Staring Man’ are amongst the album’s many other highlights. But, if this all sounds like too much of a downer for you, the Cowboy Junkies prove that they don’t take themselves too seriously as they opt to finish off this rather dour song cycle with the punky, Billy Bragg-ish ‘Fuck, I Hate the Cold’ that asks if life is so damned hard anyway, why did God also burden us with the Canadian winter.
If there was any justice in the musical world, every one of the discs in ‘The Nomad Series’ would already be in your collection. Running the sonic gamut from the tender and ethereal to the raunchy and distorted, ‘The Nomad Series’ offers a snapshot of the Cowboy Junkies as artists as each CD reflects a different aspect of their music. Test the waters with ‘The Wilderness’ and it shouldn’t be too long before you reach back and check out the whole series. You wont’ be sorry. There are enough musical and lyrical ideas to keep even the most demanding listener fascinated for a long, long time. Highly recommended.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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