by Jewly Hight
Seldom are dire truths about parent-child relationships expressed with the paradoxical candor and serenity of the final track on the Cowboy Junkies’ 11th studio album (their 15th overall), At the End of Paths Taken. “My only guarantee / I will fuck you up,” Margo Timmins exhales above the lulling, liquid pulse of piano. Then a chorus of children’s voices chimes in with cherubic la la las. It’s a realist’s lullaby, pairing the lush repose of Timmins’ vocals and the bare nuance of her brother Michael Timmins’ songwriting—and it’s sobering, yet oddly comforting.
“I love that song,” she says. “To me it’s like a total lullaby to my son. The ‘I will fuck you up’ part…it’s really ‘I’m here—I am here for you. I will always be here for you, doing the best I can do. But I can’t promise that your life is going to go perfectly.’ I mean, it’s not that you’re not going to try your hardest. God knows you’re going to do your best. But let’s face it—everybody I know in their 40s isn’t walking around totally healthy, and their parents did their best.”
Coming from a band entering its third decade, comprised of three siblings (drummer Peter Timmins is the third) and a longtime friend (bassist Alan Anton) who still enjoy each other’s company and whose thoughts are increasingly occupied with their own children and aging parents, the album’s 11 meditations on family carry the weight of experience.
“To me, this is just a natural progression that we should be here, especially with Mike and I, because we’re very close in age,” says Margo. “As his sister, when he’s written a song, I’ve pretty much known where the roots of the songs were just because I’ve shared his life. I think that because I am the singer and Mike’s the songwriter, it’s allowed him the freedom to really write intimately without feeling that he’s got to stand up and read his journal to everybody. He hands it to me, so I’m going to read it.”
Hazy, atmospheric understatement has long defined the Cowboy Junkies’ sound. (Case in point: their 1988 cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”—one of the Junkies’ only recordings to get much airplay—is a great deal sultrier and sleepier than the original.) Here they’ve distilled the narratives down to evocative, multivalent fragments. Epic string flourishes and other intricacies expand upon an already spacious sound, and the breathiness of Margo’s voice has given way to a ripened knowingness.
During songs like the spare, orchestral “Spiral Down” and “Follower 2”—the latter inspired by Irish poet Seamus Heaney—interwoven images seem to speak to youth at one moment and to old age the next. “Sometimes when I’m singing, it’s about my dad; other days I’m singing about my husband and I after we’ve had a fight, or my sister,” she says. “After a warm day in February, when I’m singing ‘Spiral Down,’ I’m thinking [about] global warming.”
“My Little Basquiat,” an ominous, churning exploration of children’s fragile creative potential, eventually erupts into an anxious, spasmodic guitar solo, like a parent’s heart rubbed raw. “Look at [Jean-Michel] Basquiat’s mom,” Margo says. “I’m sure she didn’t count on the ending of his life. And yet here he was, such a talented artist and he gave the world such great art. I always think, ‘All these people have mothers.’ ” Like the majority of the Toronto quartet’s output, the song is better equipped for slow digestion than for radio spins, which doesn’t bother the band a bit.
“Even today the arguments you have with record labels.... Sometimes you give them a record and they’re still wanting a single,” Margo says. “You’re kidding, right? Twenty years [after ‘Sweet Jane’]—‘Okay, is there a single on this record?’ Oh, for God’s sake. No—no single. And radio hasn’t played us for 50 years, so why do you care? It’s so archaic—it’s an archaic way of thinking of how to sell a record.”
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