Subdued, mystical palette from Canadian titans of Americana.
It is now 35 years since the release of ‘The Trinity Sessions’, a record which even now stands as a pillar in the formation of Americana music. The quietude of that music was entirely at odds with almost any musical scene you cared to mention in 1988. The space, intensity and stark beauty that album captured, all recorded in a church and resolutely lo-fi, caught the ear of many who yearned for non-digitised music that had an emotional human connection. Fantastic songwriting in the likes of ‘Misguided Angel’ and ‘To Love Is To Bury’ sat easily alongside radically different covers of artists as disparate as Hank Williams, Lou Reed and Patsy Cline.
So what happens when a band suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves at the zeitgeist of a moment? In the Cowboy Junkies case, they rather gradually and elegantly carved a musical heritage for themselves, and subsequently remained slightly below the radar in terms of the wider public consciousness. The sparse blues and folk of ‘Trinity…’ were followed with the refined country storytelling of ‘The Caution Horses’, and then subtly different elements were added or subtracted as the years and albums went by. It is also interesting and significant that the group has retained the same personnel throughout its journey – main songwriter Michael Timmins on guitar, his sister Margo on vocals, brother Peter on drums, and old friend Alan Anton on bass.
Which brings us to the latest offering, ‘Such Ferocious Beauty’, their first album of new material since 2018’s ‘All That Reckoning’. With the Timmins family having recently lost their father, who had suffered from dementia, it is little surprise that Michael’s songs this time round dealt with the challenges faced by providing care for both children and parents in a difficult world; and that one of the major themes of the album he describes in one word: ‘impermanence‘.
Opener ‘What I Lost’ immediately pitches the listener into this world, with a slightly off-kilter strum in the intro providing a subtle sense of disorientation, before Margo’s voice kicks in on an odd beat and singing “I woke up this morning/ didn’t know who I was/ I looked at the room, and didn’t know where I was/ or if I ever was”.
The album is filled with moments such as this; starkly beautiful lyrical vignettes in made-to-measure musical backdrops, and Margo’s voice which (as ever) sounds more haunted than haunting.
Musically, there is a lot of intelligence applied to arrangements that serve the songs, rather than the players. This should come as no surprise to any follower of the band, as if there is one motif that they have adhered to throughout the past three and a half decades, it has been just that. No flashiness, no grandstanding, just stories told with emotional resonance.
As such, it is difficult to pick out specific songs, as there is a consistency throughout that makes such thoughts futile. There is little that suggests genre any more – not really folk or blues or jazz or country, but rather a band playing music that has an unusual intensity at its soul. Closer ‘Blue Skies’ opens with bird song, and comprises the gentlest of acoustic guitar parts and Margo’s hushed vocal, with a minimum of additional instrumentation. In that, it perhaps provides a sonic difference to the other tracks here; but really, it’s just another shade in the Cowboy Junkies’ subdued, mystical palette, and it’s a welcome thing each time they grace the world with more of their music.