Most people, if they know Cowboy Junkies at all, came to them via what I am duty-bound to call their “sophomore” album, 1988’s The Trinity Session. Famously recorded live in a Toronto church off a single microphone, the album has become the group’s most popular and enduring recording for its hushed ambience, its inspired mix of covers and originals and, in particular, its definitive take on The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”. True to form, though, I was slow to wake up to the group, and only got on the bus with the follow-up, 1990’s The Caution Horses. But it was that record, which I regard as not only better than The Trinity Session but as Cowboy Junkies’ best album ever, that made me a fan of the group for life. It’s remarkable that they’re still here 30 years later, still with the same line-up and still making albums of impeccable quality, of which Ghosts is just the latest. The album had a very specific gestation, of which more in a moment. First, though, and since this is primarily a blog about live concerts, a little reminiscence.
Although Cowboy Junkies are still an active live group, it’s been many years since I last saw them. Culturally speaking, I suspect that alt.country is not a particularly good fit in Austria and Switzerland, the two countries where I’ve lived for the past fifteen years. The group are still very popular in the UK, though, and indeed I saw them several times in London and Brighton in the 1990s and early 2000s. I remember two such occasions very well, in sharply contrasting venues. In 1992 they played the Royal Albert Hall on the Black-Eyed Man tour, and very effectively took control of that beautiful yet cavernous venue.
Four years later, on the back of the superb Lay It Down album, I saw the group at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden, north-west London. The other week I wrote about 1990s London being my golden age of concert-going, and indeed the Mean Fiddler and its adjoining Acoustic Room was a place I returned to time and time again. The fact that Cowboy Junkies were playing such a small venue was certainly not a sign of their appeal becoming more selective, since the show was sold out many times over. Instead I seem to remember it was part of a week of special concerts by artists who normally played much larger venues, and indeed my recently unearthed 1996 gig diary confirms that I saw The Divine Comedy (another group who could normally be relied upon to fill much larger venues than the Mean Fiddler) the day after the Junkies concert. Queueing up outside the Mean Fiddler before the concert in order to get a good spot (a habit I retain to this day), it was a very pleasant surprise to see all four members of the group walk out of the venue, no doubt on their way to some pre-concert meal or other. My copy of Lay It Down was duly signed.
Fast forward 24 years and Cowboy Junkies are back with a new album, Ghosts, currently available only on streaming services. The story goes that, shortly after the release of 2018’s excellent All That Reckoning album, the mother of the Timmins siblings (who together make up three-quarters of Cowboy Junkies) sadly passed away. In the aftermath of her passing, the group started working on a batch of new songs that, in their words, “deal with the ultimate reckoning, the reckoning that comes with the death of a loved one and the reassessing that one goes through as one tries to process such a loss.” The original intention was to release these songs as part of a double vinyl set along with a remastered and reissued All That Reckoning. With Covid-19 putting paid to that plan, the group decided to release the new songs anyway.
Musically, Ghosts breaks little new ground for Cowboy Junkies. The group’s sound is still built around Margo Timmins’ gorgeous voice, which slides like honey over Michael Timmins’ emotionally wrought guitar and Peter Timmins’ unerring percussion. “Slides like honey”, by the way, is in reference to Neil Young’s famous “honey slides”, a snooze-inducing combination of marijuana and honey that was apparently consumed heavily during the On The Beach sessions. Not that I’ve ever tried one, but I’d like to think that the effect of this concoction is not unlike the narcotized bliss of Cowboy Junkies at their most mellow. Check out, by the way, their magnificent cover of one of my favourite Neil Young songs, “Helpless”, on the bonus disc of 2004’s One Soul Now.
Lyrically, too, there are no major surprises in store. Michael Timmins has long been one of the most profoundly literate and affecting lyricists in rock, his texts resonant with absence, loss and regret. And here in these songs Timmins speaks bravely and eloquently about one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can undergo, the death of a parent. As Margo sings with paralysing self-doubt on “Desire Lines”: “Was it love that drew us in? Was it love that she’d impart? All I know is that these ghosts, piece by piece, are pulling me apart.” Elsewhere, the sepulchral, piano-led “Breathing” could almost serve as an epitaph for those lost to Covid-19: “I watched your chest and stomach heaving, I know this is not right.” Of course, the group also know how to cut loose when they want to. “(You Don’t Get To) Do It Again” is a fiery rocker with an insanely catchy refrain and searing guitar from Timmins, while “This Dog Barks” is marked by furious riffing and hectic fiddle work.
The problem is that at just over 30 minutes long, the album feels frustratingly slight. What’s more, of its eight tracks, two are basically superfluous. One song, “The Possessed”, was already released on the CD, but not the vinyl version, of All That Reckoning – which is presumably why it’s now been added to what was originally planned as a vinyl-only release. Lyrically chilling, its presence on Ghosts nevertheless feels unearned due to its piffling ukulele accompaniment – an objection that applies even more forcefully to the album’s closer, “Ornette Coleman”, which has the dubious distinction of being possibly the most inconsequential song Cowboy Junkies have ever put their name to. The rest is fine stuff, although it will certainly make more sense in its originally intended form as an appendix to All That Reckoning than it does as an album in its own right.