When listening to All That Reckoning, Cowboy Junkies’ first album in six years, it’s hard not to survey political storm clouds. Vocalist Margo Timmins practically invites us to do so in the dread-laced When We Arrive: “Welcome to the age of dissolution … everything unsure, everything unstable.” But just as the Canadian quartet found widespread fame with a rare hush, even the collection’s most overt protest songs eschew a megaphone.
“I didn’t necessarily start writing the record in terms of the political or social climate,” guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins said during a backstage interview with sister Margo before a concert at Montreal’s Corona Theatre in May. “It was more about an internal climate and internal politics — a personal reckoning, which then melded with a social reckoning. I began to notice these nice parallels between what’s happening in the outside world and the inside world.”
The gently ticking The Things We Do to Each Other alludes to the impossibility of stemming a tide of hatred. But, Margo said, “when I was singing that song, I wasn’t thinking of it on a global level. I was thinking of it on an intimate level — the way we treat each other in our social situations. Then you start to think of the bigger issues.”
Released on Friday, July 13, All That Reckoning isn’t the first Junkies record in which intimate traumas fuse with politics; Early 21st Century Blues (2005) tapped into a global anxiety at the midpoint of the George W. Bush presidency. But while that album’s topical anti-war sentiments were voiced mostly through subtle covers, giving the feel of a quality stopgap release, Michael Timmins’s nuanced and questioning lyrics help make All That Reckoning as ambitious in its way as the Junkies’ Nomad Series, a sequence of four themed albums released in a flush of activity from 2010 to 2012.
“I don’t want to write a record just about what’s happening outside today, because then in five years it becomes irrelevant. It has to have an internal dialogue, otherwise to me the songs don’t last,” Michael said. “Also, I want to make sure that any aspect of it from the social side, the political side, is not stating a hard viewpoint. We have lots of fans who I know would be on a very different side of the political spectrum than we are, especially in the States, and I feel it’s necessary to get them into the conversation as well.”
The new album’s interior/exterior mirror is reflected in two versions of the title track — the first summoning the creeping unspoken dread of a relationship under attack from within, the second a serrated psychedelic surge brimming with anger.
“We can’t make up our minds,” Margo said with a laugh.
“Especially with this one, there seemed to be a reason for it, like bookends,” Michael added. “It kind of fed into the title — the way we relate to each other, and the personal and the social — so it made sense in a high-concept way. But in a very basic way, we just liked the way both of them put the song across.”
The radically different presentations of the track speak to the scope of one of the Junkies’ most eclectic albums. From acoustic warmth to electric rage, all their strengths are here, with Margo Timmins continuing to display a striking ability to sound at once reassuring and battle-scarred. Rounded out by sibling Peter Timmins on drums and lifelong family friend Alan Anton on bass, the band is as uncommonly tight as ever, in personal and business terms as well as musical terms. Few other groups have maintained an unchanged lineup for more than three decades while cultivating such a devoted fan base and managing to keep the industry at arm’s length.
“Thankfully, the four of us have always had the same attitude toward the business side of things,” Margo said. “It’s not the end-all — we don’t have to sell tons of records and we don’t have to get on every magazine. We’ve always been casual about that.”
Even when they were on major labels from the late ’80s to late ’90s, the Junkies were gloriously insular. Their 1988 breakthrough The Trinity Session was remarkable for any number of reasons — from the single-microphone setup to its whispered holiness and intuitive folk/blues crawl — but they all had to do with an intimate bond.
“My son was listening to that the other day and I walked in,” Michael said of the 30-year-old landmark. “I can see him listening to it in the same sense I think a lot of people listened to it back then: ‘What is this? How was this made?’ It’s such an honest record, and I think we’re back to that point again where people aren’t making very honest records anymore. There are some very cool records, some really amazing records production-wise, but you don’t hear stuff like that: Here it is. People playing together.”
It was a once-in-a-lifetime album, “capturing some magical thing that happens on a specific day,” he added.
“We often will be working on something new,” Margo said, “or even old, and we’ll play it and we look at each other and go, ‘Well, we’ll never do it like that again. That was the moment. And if the tape had been going, we would have caught it.’ ”
AT A GLANCE
All That Reckoning is released on Friday, July 13.
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