Maybe it’s Margo Timmins’ voice, the way she straddles the line between spoken word and that broken sense of melody. Could be the surprising production often displayed on their albums; where drums sound like drums, not grand explosions in a canyon. The guitars are allowed to reflect and react to the touch of Michael Timmins’ fingers rather than being cajoled into digital perfection by a few crafty clicks of the mouse, though he displays no fear of mercilessly tweaking their voices here and there with some well-chosen effects.
This isn’t to say that the Junkies haven’t evolved — boy, have they ever. Anyone that lost track after the band’s first “hit” back in ’88, a languid cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” might not even recognize the band now. There are different elements at work, and this is a group of musicians operating in a very different world than back then.
At the center of At the End of Paths Taken is the theme of family, but this isn’t a glorification of the concept, rather it’s a study on just how difficult it is to just be a family. The questions of what exactly your children will grow up to be, whether two people are actually strong enough to stay together through the years, mortality and the inevitable damage being a parent (even a good one) can do are all dealt with in different, but always evocative ways here.
Tell me that the hair on the back of your neck doesn’t stand up in the first minutes of the powerful and unsettling “It Doesn’t Really Matter Anyway.” No? Liar. Though they were never lacking in the “vibe” department, with the addition of the gorgeously skewed string arrangements of Henry Kucharzyk the band reaches new heights of tension and beauty. And even without the strings, a song like “My Little Basquiat” turns a mother’s reflection on her children into an ominous and hypnotic wash of whispered vocals and chilling swoops of feedback.
At the End of Paths Taken doesn’t pull any punches in its portrayal of the family dynamic, good and bad. “Follower 2” traces an endearing portrait of a father through his children’s eyes, as focused on the present as it is an inevitable future. Again, Kucharzyk adds a string arrangement that goes exactly where you wouldn’t expect during the bridge, juggling tonalities and mixing the emotional content of the song in a way that keeps you comfortably off balance.
The conclusion of “Mountain” is simply huge, a wave of cello and violin and guitar that builds on itself until crashing into a blurry sound collage of voice and strangled, fuzzed out guitar. And the closer, “My Only Guarantee” is the epitome of honesty in regards to a parent’s fear that the only thing they can be sure of doing for their child is exactly the wrong thing.
Admittedly, I’m one of those folks that lost track of the Cowboy Junkies for a while. Sure, I’d heard bits and pieces of their later albums and caught a few appearances on late night TV, but all in all I just didn’t pay too much attention. At the End of Paths Taken will do much to change such complacency, because an album like this doesn’t just “appear” in a band’s catalog as if from nowhere; they have to build up to it.
Whatever journey led the Timmins family and company to build something as intriguing as this must have been one hell of a ride, and once I’ve gotten a grasp on all the amazing stuff in the nooks and crannies of At the End of Paths Taken it’ll probably be time to take a closer look back at what else the Junkies have been up to all these years. Highly recommended.