It’s a lot to expect for a band to be bursting with ideas at the 25-year mark, but that’s what the Cowboy Junkies had to be to make The Nomad Series, a four-CD project now available both as separate releases and as a box set. The recordings took place over 18 months, an option that probably wouldn’t have been available if the Cowboy Junkies were still tied to a major label. The concept is intriguing— four CDs, each with its own character, but unified in that all were recorded during the same maelstrom of creativity—and following these wayward souls from the first volume to the last may make you feel like a bit of a nomad as well.
Nothing here is a radical departure for the group, but the recordings still cover a lot of ground. Although I wouldn’t classify early Cowboy Junkies records as high energy, Volumes 1 (Renmin Park) and 4 (The Wilderness) of The Nomad Series make clear just how much more subdued their sound has become, with the acoustic guitar work of Michael Timmons defining their sound as much as Margo Timmons’ voice. Demons (Volume 2) is similarly low-key, but dedicated to the music of Vic Chessnut, whose work is so idiosyncratic you can feel the Cowboy Junkies leaving their comfort zone. Quite possibly Demons is the most haunting, depressing, and emotionally desperate music the band has ever created—which, by the way, is saying something—and they probably felt relieved, during the recording sessions for Sing in My Meadow (Volume 3), to let their hair down and rock out in their own ambient way.
So what does it all add up to? The tribute to Vic Chessnut simply strikes me as the right artists covering a memorable songwriter. Although it’s clearly the most casual effort of the four, Sing in My Meadow features some memorable compositions, and it’s fun hearing the band cut loose on some psychedelic blues. As far as musicianship is concerned, all four CDs impress, with Michael Timmons’ artistry being particularly distinguished.
Still, the performances occasionally strike me as heavy-handed. Some lyrics seem self-consciously poetic and the phrasing forced. Clearly Margo Timmins has matured as a singer, but there are times during Volumes 1 and 4 when I wish she hadn’t and that the Cowboy Junkies were still floating in the same haze that defined them early in their career, when “restrained” seemed too weak a word to describe their style. Ultimately, though, their music seemed more powerful because they were holding back.
These objections quickly melt away, however, when the song writing is so solid and the melodies so memorable that the musicians let the songs do the work. “Stranger Here,” “(You’ve Got to Get) A Good Heart,” “My Fall,” “Little Dark Heart,” “Unanswered Letter,” “Damaged from the Start,” “Staring Man” and “The Confession of George E” are highlights that rank with anything the Cowboy Junkies have recorded. Those songs, plus the middle CDs and the serendipitous nature of this project, will keep me following the circuitous trail of The Nomad Series. (Vinyl junkies may want to know that The Wilderness is also available as an audiophile LP from Speakers Corner.)