A Look Back At…..At The End Of Paths Taken (review)

Over the coming many months we will occasionaly be dedicating a month to celebrate and look back at one of our albums. This month we are spotlighting At The End Of Paths Taken. Make sure that you check out our Facebook page for more photos related to the making of the album.

This review was written by Dave Bowler when Paths Taken was released back in 2007. Dave is writing a bio of our studio albums and we feel that he has a pretty good grasp of our ouvre (so to speak)…

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COWBOY JUNKIES – AT THE END OF PATHS TAKEN

More than twenty years in to a career, there aren’t many artists that are going anyplace. You are what you are what you are. You buy a book, watch a movie, hear a record by somebody who’s been at that that long, you’re putting on familiar shoes. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that either, a little security in a fast changing world.

And yet and yet.

Creation is all about change. You want to keep creating, you gotta keep changing, that was Miles’ philosophy, and pretty well every time you got a new Davis disc, you got a charge of electricity that raced up the spine and knocked your wig off, for good or bad. Not many of those guys about.

You find another one, you better relish that, better cherish it, because those are the artists that are worth having around your house, in your ears, taking space in your head. They’re the ones that are going to wake you up, challenge you, maybe tell you something instead of reinforcing what you already think you know, better yet, make you ask yourself some questions, or help you strip away some dirt from the answers that were there all the time.

You probably think you know what the new Cowboy Junkies record sounds like. You don’t. Yes, the trademarks are there. How could it be otherwise after two decades? But they’re all twisted, re-evaluated, renewed. Songs no longer draw life from the understated, almost unheard pulse of Alan Anton’s bassline, a sound that now propels undulating melodies on “Mountain” or “My Little Basquiat”. Anton almost switches places with Margo Timmins, still the most arresting voice in the game, yet buried deeper inside these songs, songs which create a surround sound universe of their own, be it from plaintive acoustics like “Someday Soon” or the kitchen sink overload of “Mountain”, where all hell breaks loose. Tomorrow never knew.

There are changes here that Junkies purists may baulk at. Drummer Pete Timmins is no longer the easygoing engine. Instead he’s embraced edgy percussion, thoughtful rhythms that knock you off kilter, make you listen more carefully. There’s nothing obvious, or easy going on here. Outside studiophile / musician Joby Baker has added a mesh of instrumentation and sounds that take this record a long way from the skeletal nature of “Whites Off Earth Now!!” Strings play a heavy, dramatic role on several songs. And drama is the keynote in a record which you could loosely call a concept album if the term didn’t bring to mind visions of hobbits, pinball players and wizards on ice.

Yet this is a concept record of sorts. A concept record for grown ups. Like his colleagues, songwriter and guitarist Michael Timmins has dispensed with standbys and certainties, thrown everything in the air, and begun to rework his craft. Echoing the pacifist sentiment that was the core of their last effort, the quickly recorded “Early 21st Century Blues”, “At The End Of Paths Taken” muses on a particular theme, that of family, the way patterns are repeated from father to son to son and back again, the way the greatest joys bring with them the heaviest burdens, the way the outside world can devastate the closest familial relationship, and the way in which we are all helpless to do anything about it. It’s a record that continues to work through themes of war and peace, a hangover from “Early 21st Century Blues”, looking at how the macro can militate against the micro. It’s a record that looks at the biggest betrayal, the one none of us can avoid, the betrayal of mortality. It’s a record that’s simultaneously about surrender, about giving oneself up to the journey while raging against the pain that creates. That duality, that life is hard, confusing, painful, but still the best thing we’ve managed to come up with so far has long been a core Junkies theme, but on this record, it’s been honed to perfection.

Where Michael Timmins was a short-story writer in song, on this album, he’s a spare, sparse poet, betraying a distinct e.e.cummings influence in lyrics that are impressionistic yet cutting, forensic but embracing, emotional but without a trace of sentimentality. The first track, “Brand New World”, sets the tone, Margo Timmins intoning the list of cares that 40somethings carry about their neck, day after day, “Mouths to feed, Shoes to buy, Rent to pay, Tears to dry”.

The first half of the record covers the darkest fears, that we won’t be up to the job as parents, that we will fail our children or that someone, somewhere will fail all our children, that a madman in the White House could blow us all apart, that a nutcase with a suitcase could take everything down with him. There’s the wonder of fatherhood on the loping, grooving, vaguely sinister “My Little Basquiat”, counterbalanced by the fear of what the world is going to do to those kids when you’re not around to stop it.

Having introduced listeners to new soundscapes, dissonant sounds, powerful emotional terrain, the second half of the record builds and builds, increasingly personal, intimate but wholly identifiable. “Follower2” is a centrepiece, tracing the evolution from father to son, to son becoming father, scraps from Michael’s childhood, inklings from his future, one relationship becoming the other. “I can’t bear to hear his breathing, simply knowing what’s to come”. Is that the breath of a dying father, or a sleeping son, a life full of trials behind or before him? The closing, “Here you will always be, behind me, and you will not go away. Here I will always be, behind you, and I will never go away” is a perfect summation of the handing down of the generations, something picked up on again in “Mountain”, something they used to call a sound collage, mixing the Timmins’ father reading from his memoirs, all kinds of studio samples and sounds, wrenching strings, Margo Timmins wailing “How’d this mountain get so high?” into the abyss. If they hadn’t already come up with the phrase “sensory overload”, you’d have to invent it for this.

But there’s still a peak to come, “My Only Guarantee”. It’s the final twist of the knife, but to say more would be like telling you whodunnit before you started reading a mystery novel. Get the record, set an hour aside, put the headphones on and listen. Really listen. Because the only reference point I can give you to a record this complex, this intriguing, this overloaded with sounds, yet so simple, is one that came out 34 years ago. The effects, the sounds, the overwhelming scale are obvious comparisons, but that’s too facile.

The common ground is that “At The End Of Paths Taken” is a record that somebody needed to make, one that you have to live with from start to finish, one that unfolds, washes over you. It’s a statement of humanity in a dehumanising time, in a time where you’re only supposed to feel what Oprah tells you to feel.

“At The End Of Paths Taken” is a record for those of us who know we don’t know. Take the journey. We’ll meet you on the dark side of the moon.

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