WITH STRINGS: Domestic drama is informed by the weight of contemporary political and social travails on At the End of Paths Taken.
More often than not, when an artist gets airplay covering a decades-old song, it’s out of desperation — the sign of a career on its way down. (Sorry, Sheryl Crow.) But Toronto’s Cowboy Junkies have defied that pattern since they broke out in 1988 with a somnambulant reinterpretation of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” on The Trinity Sessions (RCA), their second album.
Soon after, they departed from a lullabies-for-hipsters formula to add layers of musical complexity — a tack they’ve followed right through to At the End of Paths Taken (Zoë/Latent), 11 songs with varied musical textures and emotionally probing lyrics that they’re bringing to the Somerville Theatre this Wednesday. (They’ll return for the Boston Pops’ “On the Edge” series June 23 and 24.) The disc is a balance of quietude and rippling dissonance, a sonic reflection of songwriter Michael Timmins’s contemplations on family, aging, and childhood and how the weight of modern life affects them.
Although all 12 Cowboy Junkies studio albums have had a sustained mood — with Margo Timmins’s voice as a common thread and gentle melodic anchor, Michael as compositional architect, and their drummer brother Peter the rhythmic flywheel — At the End of Paths Taken marks the first time Michael aimed to write a disc around a core concept. Says Margo over the phone, “We’re all in our mid 40s and have children and older parents, and Michael was planning to write songs inspired by that — the idea of family and how we become our parents and pass that along to our children. But then the war in Iraq and politics and little things like a new local law that won’t allow children to play hockey in the neighborhood park all started to affect his writing, much in the same way those things affect everybody’s life.”
Sometimes Timmins’s tales are swaddled in strings and delivered gently as a baby’s song. Sometimes they’re harshly real, as when Margo concludes the disc with this promise to a child: “My only guarantee/I will fuck you up” (“My Only Guarantee”). Or worries about a young painter who grows up to become not “My Little Basquiat” but cannon fodder.
It helps that Michael has continued to expand his role. Since 1992’s Black Eyed Man (RCA), his writing has evolved to capture the collisions of time-tested values and modern life with poignance and humor in a detailed way that suggests the novels of Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth. His playing takes in the lulling acoustic vibe of numbers like “Spiral Down” as well as the gnashing tectonic plates of guitar in “Cutting Board Blues.”
Margo: “I really enjoy singing Michael’s words, and I’ve never refused to sing anything he’s written, because he has a way of making his songs speak to everyone. But most people only focus on Michael as a songwriter. His guitar playing and production are overlooked, yet they add layers and textures of sound that create their own emotions.”
Michael also wrote many of these songs to incorporate strings, which were a studio afterthought on earlier Cowboy Junkies recordings. “Having the strings really inspired my singing, and when we play these songs live I miss them.”
That won’t be a problem when Cowboy Junkies return in June to play with the Pops. “I’m not sure what songs we’ll be doing yet or how that’s going to work, exactly, but we did three or four songs with the Toronto Symphony once, and it was really joyful and inspiring.”
COWBOY JUNKIES + TEDDY THOMPSON | Somerville Theatre, Davis Square, Somerville | May 16 | 617.931.2000 | “Pops on the Edge” at Symphony Hall, 301 Mass Ave, Boston | June 23-24 | 888.266.1200