Cowboy Junkies burst onto the music scene in 1988 with their classic album, The Trinity Sessions, and in particular their cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” Although that was the peak of their popularity, the band has continued to enthrall a devoted cult following throughout their tenure, which has seen the line-up remain amazingly consistent regardless of the fact that most are family members as siblings Wilson, Reid, Gallagher, et al., can attest to.
Guitarist Michael Timmins, the band’s leader and creative force, has always been a captivating storyteller, presenting intriguing characters that listeners can identify with. In the liner notes, he explains his artistic goals with At the End of Paths Taken. “I set out to write an album that dealt with ‘family’ and all of the complex relationships that are suggested by the word. Those relationships and how they continue to echo down through generations is something that, as a parent of three young children and as a son of aging parents, has been playing/preying on my mind for the past few years.”
“Brand New World” is the one a new parent finds herself in. “Mouths to feed/ Shoes to buy/ Rent to pay/ Tears to dry,” but are the tears of children or her own? What’s very compelling is that this parent freely admits, “I can’t relate…and my heart is missing,” revealing those moments of fear and doubt that some people surely must have but no one admits to. The band’s musical palette is expanded as a string section backs Margo Timmins’ vocals here and on other tracks.
Michael’s fuzzed-out guitar appears on “Cutting Board Blues” and sounds great. The narrator is resigned to let him go, knowing full well she’s better off, but only has one request, “If you gone and made up your mind/ ’bout leaving tomorrow/ take it all but leave my cutting board behind.” She needs very little to survive without him.
A separation of another type occurs on “Spiral Down.” It’s a gut-wrenching song about losing a loved one, either parent or spouse, to the ravages of time and disease “as my mind begins to waver/ losing contact with you.” The music is soft and gentle backed by acoustic guitar and a return of the strings, but it does nothing to ease the anguish as one of the characters sings, “I’m nowhere near my peace/ as you spiral down.”
Death continues to be dealt with in “Follower 2” as the narrator reflects on her father and the inevitable. She “can’t bear to hear his screaming, simply knowing/ what’s to come” and in turn “can’t bear to hear your breathing, knowing what’s to come.” Yet, the bond between loved ones will remain strong as they “will always be behind” each other “and will never go away.” The strings sound marvelous on this song and would make the perfect soundtrack for approaching the Pearly Gates.
“My Little Basquiat” finds a parent or parents watching children play, hoping for the best, fearing the worst, knowing they won’t be able to completely protect them from the future. Living with war understandably affects a parent as she worries about her son. “One day he’ll be golden, maybe chosen/ Perhaps to lead/ One day he’ll be shaken, maybe taken/ Perhaps to bleed.” However, there is always hope that the children “maybe living/Perhaps in peace.”
“My Only Guarantee” contains one of the most refreshingly honest narrators ever as a parent reveals that while she has your back “a bigger job I’ve never had/ a bigger burden I could not drag/ my only guarantee:/ I will fuck you up.” The revelation is startling at first; it’s so raw and the word “fuck” has so much power when it’s so rarely used by an artist. It could equally apply to an adult relationship, and no doubt the sentiments certainly do for many, but the children’s choir la-laing on the bridges reinforces the parental relationship.
At the End of Paths Taken is most definitely the work of grown-ups for grown-ups. It can be tough to deal with emotionally at times, as is life, but the commitment is worth experiencing.