Folk/Rock Album Review: The Cowboy Junkies’ “Such Ferocious Beauty” — No Comfortable Retreat
By Scott McLennan
Such Ferocious Beauty ranks among the best of the Cowboy Junkies’ work — you can feel the band challenging itself, thriving in the tumult it generates.
Such Ferocious Beauty, Cowboy Junkies (Cooking Vinyl)
In some regards, Cowboy Junkies have remained radically unchanged, the same band it was nearly 40 years. Margo Timmins’s hypnotic voice is instantly recognizable. Michael Timmins’s guitar work and songwriting are as paradoxical as ever: raw and blunt yet also alluring and accessible. Drummer Peter Timmins and bassist Alan Anton not only supply the band’s atmospheric rhythms, but the pair is also largely responsible for keeping the listener anchored in the Cowboy Junkies’ shape-shifting soundscapes.
Yet, you cannot call the Cowboy Junkies predictable. The group’s new album, Such Ferocious Beauty, is far from sounding like a comfortable retreat smacking of nostalgic warmth. There are some brutal and unflinching moments in this outing — the band wants to shake us up as well as make us think.
The songs came together and were recorded in 2020 and 2021, and they reflect the pandemic chaos along with social and political strife that was rife around the globe. On top of that, the band’s three Timmins siblings were observing their father fall deeper into dementia, and eventually die.
Michael Timmins burrowed into these personal and political crises, crafting songs whose passions reflect an attempt to sincerely grapple with the uncertainty coming from all sides. In that sense, the album stands as an antidote to all of the loud and often meaningless posturing that was (and is) spewed out on social media or the cable news outlet of your choice.
The opener, “What I Lost,” juxtaposes an urgent guitar strum with Margo Timmins’s languid delivery of the line “I woke up this morning, I didn’t know who I was.” As the song develops its dramatization of how dementia slowly vaporizes a person’s memories, the band taps into the different perspectives, including the pain that occurs when a loved one become psychologically sealed off from family members, imagining the emotional states of both parent and child.
“Shadows 2” is another song directly linked to the loss of the Timmins patriarch. Michael Timmins drew inspiration from the D.H. Lawrence poem “Shadows.” (“I am in the hands of the unknown God,/ he is breaking me down to his own oblivion/ to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.”) Ostensibly about their father’s worsening senility, Margo Timmins turns the song into a meditation on whether (or if) we can discern another person’s state of mind. Looking at a person sitting alone on a bench, eyes trained nowhere in particular, how can we tell how attuned they are to reality? The band speculates about the mystery; there is no interest in making a call on what kind of response is called for. The enigma of consciousness is at the center of this tune.
The 10 songs on Such Ferocious Beauty tend to pair up, as in the thematic duet of “What I Lost” and “Shadows 2.”
“Flood” and “Knives,” for instance, appear to be linked by considerations of violence. In “Flood,” nature unleashes destruction, the tune’s noisy and thick musical arrangement surges and withdraws, evoking the powerful water bearing down on the song’s characters.
With “Knives,” the violence is man-made, the sound funky and minimal. Fiddle player James McKie, who contributes on various spots on the record, plays a keening line against the darker thump supplied by the Timmins brothers and Anton. Impressionistic at its core, “Knives” does have a line that seems to be its center: “Hope is fear in disguise.”
A thread of philosophy runs through “Hard to Build. Easy to Break” and “Throw a Match.” “Hard to Build” moves with evident swagger, issuing a warning to “all the future kings, all the future queens” who don’t understand the fragility of life. The wisdom of age fuels this track with a casual power — there is no interest in being preachy.
“Throw a Match” is a call to interrogate — and discriminate — between what is real and meaningful and what is flimsy and performative. Wry humor balances out the song’s serious question, and there are more wonderfully poetic lyrics dedicated to finding your moral grounding: “ Witness like a mountain/Absorb it as the sea/ Steadfast like a forest.”
Along with the advice come narratives inspired by characters, real and mythological. “Circe and Penelope” has Margo Timmins’s best performance on the album as she conjures a fresh portrait of two ancient Greek heroines. The song’s loping country-and-western tone perfectly pairs with Timmins’s quietly powerful delivery as the song ponders loss, resolve, and companionship. “Mike Tyson (Here It Comes)” is an off-kilter musing on the risks we are willing to take in life. The music is kaleidoscopic here, evocative of the anxiety that comes when we are confronted with a fight-or-flight situation. This is one of those songs without an ounce of fat on it: every line is perfectly measured for maximum impact, starting with the opening salvo, “Every man has a plan until he’s punched in the mouth and then he starts looking about.”
And finally, there’s the “field recordings” pairing. “Hell Is Real” opens with a chorus of chirping bugs that never fades away in the background of an acoustic blues that’s evocative of the band’s early records. Margo Timmins issues a fateful decree — nobody escapes some sort of grand reckoning — with detached bemusement.
On “Blue Skies,” birds are the first thing you hear before the band meanders through a series of bittersweet vignettes that touch on the wayward currents that carry us through life. We tether ourselves to locations even as we search for other destinations, often never reaching them.
Ferocious Beauty ranks among the best of the Cowboy Junkies’ work — you can feel the band challenging itself, thriving in the tumult it generates.
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.