By Scott McLennan
Darkness is pervasive in this Cowboy Junkies album, but it is not all-encompassing.
Ghosts, Cowboy Junkies
How fitting it is to have an album titled Ghosts suddenly appear at this time. Such is the case with the latest batch of songs from the Cowboy Junkies, which hit streaming services early this month. But the album’s title has less to do with the current zeitgeist than with the circumstances the band finds itself in.
Ghosts is a collection of songs the Cowboy Junkies began working on while on tour in support of the band’s brilliant 2018 album All That Reckoning. (Arts Fuse review) Siblings Michael, Margo, and Peter Timmins lost their mother two months after that album was released — the songs on Ghosts process the emotional upheaval of her death.
Stylistically, the new tunes mirror the raw, muscular sound of All That Reckoning. The plan was to release a newly remastered version of that disc as a vinyl double album with the second platter, Ghosts.
Alas, the COVID-19 crisis pushed back that project, which will now likely come out in the fall. Still, the Cowboy Junkies opted to let these songs be heard now, and that was not because they serve up warm comfort for troubled times.
Ghosts is full of heartbreak and sorrow. There is remorse. Anger. Disbelief. Fear. Those emotions are stoked by Michel Timmins’s wiry and menacing guitar performances on several of the album’s eight cuts. Still, within the gloomy tumult, the Cowboy Junkies work in flickers of light and hope.
As the band did so perfectly on All That Reckoning, the Cowboy Junkies probe duality. For instance, the opening track “Desire Lines” refers to ghosts pulling apart the song’s narrator. But, given the way singer Margo Timmins masterfully delivers the verses, one is left wondering — is this pulling apart an act of finality or a new beginning? A curse or a cleansing?
Elsewhere, the band deploys clever wordplay to knock imagery off-kilter or to create some unusual dynamic tugs. The tension set up between loss and love revealed in “Breathing” is simply mesmerizing. And the downward romantic spiral of “This Dog Barks” is smartly etched in the lines “He did not change, he was revealed/ She did not change, she was concealed.”
The band also takes the risk of letting little details move some of the songs along, while unleashing a big, bold cinematic sound on others. There is proof the Cowboy Junkies can still deliver blunt rockers, here in the form of “(You Don’t Get To) Do It Again.”
Drummer Peter Timmins and bassist Alan Anton anchor the songs with the dark, throbbing beat you’d have to call Junkie-esque. Over that anchor, anything is fair game, which means aggressive electric guitar licks, gentler piano fills, and acoustic strumming.
Buzzy electronic whirs and whooshing sound effects are peppered throughout this Ghosts tale, conjuring up sonic apparitions, if you will, that bind together the disc’s 30-minute set of tunes. A resurrection: the wry “The Possessed,” which was on the All That Reckoning CD but was left off of the original vinyl release
As mentioned, darkness is pervasive here, but not all-encompassing. The record ends with a reflection on jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The song evolves into a rumination on the power of art and memory. “His music made me question the shape of my life to come,” Margo Timmins sings. After 35 years as a group, the Junkies still revel in making mysterious shapes out of their music.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.