To release four albums in eighteen months is quite an undertaking. Less surprising, perhaps, from a band that is not averse to recording an album in a day. However, The Nomad Series is well-considered and purposeful. This quartet of albums has already found Timmins & Co wandering in the Far East (Renmin Park 2010), taking a look at the works of Vic Chesnutt (Demons 2011) and then assuming a darker, more modern and heavy guise at the third turn (Sing In My Meadow 2011) . Sonically, there is a diversity here that may help to explain the band’s longevity.
The series has taken its inspiration from the paintings of long-time band friend, Enrique Martinez Celaya. Guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins admits that there was a mountain of musical ideas with no direction, and that this in turn became the direction: a wandering – a nomadic journey, married to four of Celaya’s artworks which subsequently formed the cover art for each release.
The fourth and final instalment of The Nomad Series, entitled The Wilderness, sees a laid-back return to the Cowboy Junkies’ musical comfort zone, with satisfying results. This album paints a scene born of winter. In describing the undercurrent Timmins alludes to “fragility, emptiness, loneliness, beauty, change, loss, desperation and the balancing act that makes up a life”. It is reflective and often verges on ethereal in terms of the instrumentation and production but don’t be fooled – this release has a pure folk-rock backbone reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac when they got it right.
The Wilderness creeps into being with the eerie introduction to Unanswered Letters. This is a song of regret which springs to life on the second verse and becomes an enjoyable and memorable rock plodder. In a song we have a microcosm of the album – atmospheric and yet straightforward.
Margot Timmins’ breathy, whispered vocals ease the listener into one of the strongest songs on the album, Angels in the Wilderness. Thoughtful and emotional, she describes a broken heart and begs for understanding. There is a sorrowful beauty to this song which is as poignant and touching as anything in this band’s catalogue of work.
The Confession of Georgie E cranks up the atmospheric, phased guitar sound and forms a ghostly ballad telling a tale of the eponymous hero’s slow descent into darkness. Portishead-esque in its presentation, this song throbs rythmically as the heart of this album. Again, the otherworldliness of the album as a whole is encapsulated in a song, wonderfully.
The Wilderness contains its fair share of what could be termed country laments. However sad these songs are, the lyrics are determined to put a smile on your face. Perhaps the best of these is I Let Him In. “Some wounds will never heal. Loneliness becomes an expectation” is sung in such a way that it has to be country music poking fun at the traditional wallowing of country music.
The humour is straight-laced in the album’s closing track, Fuck, I Hate The Cold. These Canadians groove their way to the conclusion of The Nomad Series with a crowd-pleaser that is bound to end their live set.
The Cowboy Junkies work is too often viewed in terms of being compared to 1988’s seminal Trinity Session. The Wilderness may not be as ground-breaking as that early release but in its own right and as part of their most recent series it is a worthwhile and most enjoyable album.
Review by: Craig Walker
Nomad Series Volume 4 : The Wilderness is released on Proper Records (26 Mar 2012)