In 1988, a quartet of Canadians released The Trinity Session. In a world of boy bands and hair metal, few were ready for something as singular as Cowboy Junkies. 30 years later, with Americana staking its claim in the authenticity wing of country music, the Timmins clan may have finally found a home.
Cowboy Junkies latest album, All That Reckoning, will not be a complete sonic shock to longtime fans, but the band continues to push and stretch its sound beyond what we all first heard three decades ago. The first song released, “All That Reckoning”, is essentially a two-parter that bookends the album. Tension slowly builds on the first iteration while Margo Timmins sings of a seemingly doomed relationship – “I once slept/With my arms around/My legs once bound you/And I’d wake up with my heart so full of you.” This is emblematic of the love songs on the album – this ain’t sappy kid stuff. Relationships grow, threaten to shatter, then deepen in order to survive, and they’re better for it.
Lyricist and de facto bandleader Michael Timmins frequently dips (or perhaps dives) into politics on the album. “When We Arrive” begins with “Welcome to the age of dissolution,” a line that Timmins had scrawled in a notebook years ago but has just now found a use for, in an era “Where you must keep your actions faithful,” even as social mores begin to crumble. “The Things We Do To Each Other” reminds us that “Fear is not so far from hate,” but hate cannot be controlled – it devolves and destroys. “Mountain Stream (The Angel)” continues the theme of great but destructive power – “I had a dream I was king/A king of empty things.” Musically, too, the album is full of foreboding – slow instrumental burns support the overall sadness of the songs.
Love does come back, though. And it may even win, at least a little bit. “Shining Teeth” returns to a mature type of romance:
I don’t want to see your shining teeth
Show me your bruised and battered heart
Prove to me that you’ll be true
Let me touch the wounds that have haunted you
Share with me the wounds that still haunt you
Scars and damage are what make us. Everything else is make believe. And the album closes with a more electric version of the title track, subbing out Bill Dillon’s guitar solo for Aaron Goldstein’s work. “Now I sleep/With my arms around/My limbs become you/And I wake up with my heart so full of you” – love has evolved.
The band members remain the same as when they formed in Toronto in 1985: siblings Margo (vocals), Michael (guitar and ukulele), and Peter Timmins (drums and percussion), and longtime family friend Alan Anton (bass and keyboards). Michael produced, recorded and mixed the album and did the bulk of the songwriting with help on four on the songs from Anton, who also co-produced the album. Additional musicians include Jesse O’Brien (organ and piano), and James McKie (fiddle).
One more, unassailable constant over the 30-some years of the Junkies’ existence – the perfect voice of Margo Timmins. Take note, young, female, country-inclined vocalists – she doesn’t sing with the seeming sole intention of knocking the notes into submission. She sings around, through, and into the songs. She is, quite simply, the best singer in the lifespan of whatever we might choose to call this genre of music. Check it out, right here.