Cowboy Junkies’ latest release marks the 30th anniversary of the Canadian folk-rockers’ breakthrough album The Trinity Session. All That Reckoning, all these years later, still is built around Margo Timmins’ hushed vocals, but this one seethes with a barely suppressed rage at the present state of the Western world.
The Junkies maintain a familiar formula, their songs defined by Margo Timmins’ intimate vocals juxtaposed with Alan Anton’s brooding bass lines. Brothers Michael (the songwriter) and Peter add color with guitars and drums, respectively. Familiar, yes, but this time around it works extraordinarily well.
The most obvious example is the single “The Things We Do To Each Other,” a song about the present political climate. It’s stripped down to essentials, just a few simple lyrics about how politicians use fear to ramp up hatred, and simple accompaniment of strummed electric guitar, a soulful bass line and simple, snappy snares. With or without the accompanying video, its message is loud and clear.
And what could be more timely than a song called “Missing Children”? This one is dense lyrically and musically, so I’m not entirely sure what exactly it says or means, but it seems to take aim at politicians and hypocrisy. A wailing electric fiddle solo ramps up the emotional impact even if you don’t know the words.
More than one of these 11 songs treat the theme of nature as a source of solace and peace. Peace which seems sorely lacking in the human relations the songs frame. “Mountain Stream” is an allegorical tale of a king whose queen leaves him, and instead of turning to nature for comfort he takes out his anger in violence and war – on both people and nature, it seems. “Shining Teeth” is a love song of sorts that again offers nature as a healing force. The title refers to the imagery in the lyrics, a desire for emotional honesty: “Share with me the wounds that still haunt you,” Timmins pleads.
I’m not sure where the protagonists of “When We Arrive” are coming from or going to, but to me the song connects to the zeitgeist of refugees and immigrants. It’s a deceptively languid song with tremolo organ and deeply reverbed guitars and vocals, but underneath it pulses with desperation. “Welcome to the age of dissolution,” Timmins sings. “To the days of death and anger, old ideas becoming stronger, welcome.” And then comes the chorus: “What if they cast us seaward to find new land? What if we lose each other, will we be holding hands when we arrive?”
“Sing Me A Song,” a mid-tempo rocker with distorted electric guitar, sounds like it arose from that long-ago Summer of Love, a personal and political plea for forgiveness and turning away from hate.
The album opens with the first of two versions of the title track, “All That Reckoning.” It’s a brooding ballad of love turning to disillusionment and turning back into love. A song only an adult could write, I think, contemplating the lifelong process of maturing and changing perspectives on life and love and relationships. It’s a mostly acoustic track with that trademark deep thrumming bass and minimal percussion, plus a little subtle electronica, and not much else backing Margo’s vocal.
It contrasts quite sharply with the second rendition, a stabbing electric version with lacerating electric guitar accompaniment (think REM circa 1995), and a clearer, more accusatory vocal. Harsh and bleak where the first version holds out some hope of reconciliation. That track is the next-to-last, but fortunately the album ends on a gentle note with “The Possessed,” a simple tune of strummed mandolin (or ukulele?), with a simple message of love conquering over evil. Probably.
Nothing seems sure these days, and that includes the reading of the songs on All That Reckoning. Times like these are what we need folksingers for, and these Cowboy Junkies have stepped up with a timely offering.