By Daniel Garrett
Cowboy Junkies, At the End of Paths Taken,
Producer: Michael Timmins
Zoe Records, 2007
Margo Timmins (singer), Michael Timmins (guitarist), Peter Timmins (drummer), and Alan Anton (bassist and keyboard player) are the Cowboy Junkies, a band that captivated me in the late 1980s as I sat in a small Greenwich Village café eating breakfast one weekend when their interpretation of the song “Sweet Jane” came on the sound system. It was a lazy, lovely piece of music, perfect for my mood. I have wanted to commend the band ever since, and the Cowboy Junkies album At the End of Paths Taken allows me that opportunity.
On At the End of Paths Taken, “Brand New World” seems to be about the difficulty of ordinary life, with one person wanting to abdicate responsibility, someone who may be cruel or (in)sensitive, someone who says, “Let me wander in. Your heart is not such a tender thing.” Margo Timmins’s melancholy grasp of rhythm fits the band’s somber music and the song lyrics’ edgy depth. “Still Lost,” a somewhat uptempo composition, with something of a shuffling beat, states, “Here we stand at the end of paths taken. (Guiding Light Inspiration) The slow decline. The crumbling foundation, the stations, and now the cross, but we’re still lost.” The song seems to be about faith that is not redeemed. “Cutting Board Blues” surprises the listener with a throbbing, gristly instrumental rock sound and Margo Timmins’s assertive singing of idiosyncratic lines such as “If you’ve gone and made up your mind ‘bout leaving tomorrow, take it all, but leave my cutting board behind.” The song “Spiral Down” is mellow and sad: “Look upon the self. Look upon the other. We need a better understanding or we’ll spiral down.”
The songs on At the End of Paths Taken attempt to suggest the complexities—complications and contradictions, coincidences and correspondences—that are to be found in an individual mind, in a relationship, in a society. That is a respectable mission, but it is not as unusual as I have sometimes thought—it may be the most lasting goal of serious, modern artists. Whether or not artists succeed in their attempts to convey complexity depends on both substance and style. How vital is what artists have to say, and how well do they say it?
There is a sultry beat to “My Little Basquiat,” with Margot Timmins’s lead voice shadowed by a more mysterious male voice, a song in which a mother looks at her son, and her daughter, seeing them at play, and wonders what might become of them: will her son become an artist, a leader? And her daughter, what will she become? Will her expectations for her son be lived by her daughter? “Someday Soon,” about the search for a leader, for safety, for knowledge, for relief and belief, for discipline and compassion: for easy change, is a country song. The song “Follower 2” declares, “My father’s stories fell upon us, filled us with his light. Gospels, fertile minds, taking root, taking root.” The song, like some of the other songs, suggests the burden of belief: the burden of morality, discipline, behavior. “Here I will always be, behind you, and I will never go away” is the concluding line. “It Doesn’t Really Matter Anyway,” features the lines, “A misplaced word, nothing brutish, can serve as the sand to extinguish the flame. It doesn’t really matter anyway,” and is slow, downbeat, atmospheric.
At the End of Paths Taken works as a series of songs that suggest stories that stand in for the listener’s own stories. The things that might lead the listener to pleasure or regret, speculation or decision, may be like—though not necessarily the same—as the events and situations in these songs. The songs work as mood music, and as objects of contemplation, rather than as rituals of, or stimulants to, catharsis.
“Blue Eye Saviour,” on At the End of Paths Taken, offers dramatic readings of its lyrics, lyrics such as, “Where’d you go my blue eyed saviour?” and, with a questioning of faith, there are the lines, “She says, ‘Hope—the belief that loved ones will never die.’ I’ve never heard such nonsense, I’ve never heard such lies.”
A very contemporary sound with spoken interludes and interjections of noise and screaming guitar distinguish “Mountain.” (Some of its lines: “How’d this mountain get so high? Can someone tell me how this mountain got so high?” and “No need for answers, but give them choice, a simple place to hear their voice.”)
There are assurances that do not soothe in “My Only Guarantee,” which has a comforting sound for which the lyrics provide a disturbing contrast. It is a promise of betrayal, of disappointment.
At the End of Paths Taken is an intelligent, well-made addition to the catalog of the Cowboy Junkies, though it does not offer revelations of thought, or great changes in sound, or compel the listener to think differently about the band’s nature or work.
Daniel Garrett, Louisiana-born and a longtime New York resident, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, is a writer of essays and creative work, including fiction, drama, and poetry. His work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. For The Compulsive Reader, Daniel Garrett has written on music, films, and books. Author contact: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org