At the End of Paths Taken
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2007, Volume 14, #4
Written by Jason Lent
The passage of time appears to have quickened. Nearly 20 years ago, Cowboy Junkies came forth from Toronto's Church of the Holy Trinity with the aptly titled The Trinity Session which inevitably became an indispensable part of the lo-fi indie repertoire. Over the course of its first decade, Cowboy Junkies produced alt-country material that was basted in the southern gothic influence of authors such as Flannery OíConnor. Although its 1996 endeavor Lay It Down might have been limited in breadth, it was single-mindedly consistent in depth, which allowed the band to conclude the first half of its career with what was then its strongest outing to date.
Miles from Our Home, Cowboy Junkies subsequent effort, was recorded in the wake of immense personal loss. As a result, it wasn't surprising that the band had altered its course in order to head down a path that was more intimate, one that found it ruminating upon the uncertainness of everything. With the maturity and lessons learned from each passing endeavor, the story and the writer slowly became one. Anyone who continued to follow the outfit undoubtedly found that the latter portion of Cowboy Junkiesí career yielded even more musical exploration and personal introspection. It's no surprise, then, that At the End of Paths Taken, the group's latest outing, not only is the culmination of its journey, but it also is Cowboy Junkiesí masterwork.
Throughout, At the End of Paths Taken, Cowboy Junkies surveys the human quest to find happiness in a universe where everything is constantly changing and all that one loves can and probably will be stolen away. Just as Gabriel Garcia Marquez interjected family history into his classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, Cowboy Junkies utilizes the concept of kinship to frame At the End of Paths Taken in a way that links personal relationships to the often insufferable landscape of mankindís stage.
Brand New World, the opening track on At the End of Paths Taken, runs through a litany of modern-day problems: There are mouths to feed, clothes to purchase, and rent to pay. As strings hurtle headfirst into the rising musical wave, the song's growing apprehension is transformed into frantic fear, and the result sounds as if T.S. Eliotís The Hollow Men had been set to music. On My Little Basquiat, a child is born into a world that is withering. Yet, fueled by a parentís love, hope sprouts across the otherwise barren and desolate landscape. "One day, theyíll be rising, maybe living, perhaps in peace," sings Margo Timmins with an air of haunting lucidity that could not be suited better for this material. The optimism further blossoms during the rudimentary, acoustic selection Someday Soon.
Follower 2 continues Cowboy Junkiesí gentle exploration of the familial themes that are central to At the End of Paths Taken. Here, a person observes, in the same moment, their child and their own parent. It is a study of life, death, and rebirth, and although it comes with the understanding that one generation soon will be replaced by the next, the optimism and hope that had crept into songs that preceded Follower 2 is extinguished by the notion that there are many obstacles left to face. Instead of providing solace to Blue Eyed Saviour, the outside worlds of religion ("hope: the belief that loved ones will never die") and politics ("sputtering engine") expedite the pace of the civilization's decline, and the old-school sound of Cutting Board Blues aggressively tries but ultimately fails to resist this oncoming reality.
Two decades into its career, Cowboy Junkies has painted a masterstroke across its musical canvas, one that is as sonorous as it is thematically important. The groupís material may be depressing, but Cowboy Junkies has an unerring ability to create characters that merely reflect the world at large. On My Only Guarantee, the final track on At the End of Paths Taken, a chorus of childrenís voices takes flight, and although there are no answers, although there is no salvation, it is impossible not to be changed permanently by the journey itself. There, of course, can be no happier ending.
At the End of Paths Taken is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box