This is an album for people who still think Trinity Sessions stands as the Cowboy Junkies’ best recording, but also for those who want to hear how that sound has expanded and matured over the years.
Arriving, as it does, as the final chapter in a stirringly ambitious four-part opus called The Nomad Series, The Wilderness had a difficult task in tying everything together, much less matching that seminal 1988 breakthrough. Yet, this new project succeeds with a confident grace — deftly blending both the delicate folk stylings that helped give Trinity such meaning and substance (“Damaged from the Start,” songwriter Michael Timmons’ devastatingly frank “Unanswered Letter”) with the itchier, more rock-inflected attitude (“The Confession of Georgie E,” “Fuck I Hate The Cold”) that propelled last year’s psychedelic-blues adventure Sing My Meadow.
That makes The Wilderness, which completes a sprinting 18-month period of creative outbursts, both a fitting denouement and something of a career valedictory. Moving, as the Cowboy Junkies did, from experimental explorations (on 2010?s Renmin Park) to an ardently focused cover project (2011?s Demons, featuring the music of doomed songwriter Vic Chesnutt) to the scronky toughness of Meadow, this group made a lasting argument for itself as one of their era’s most versatile bands.
In other words, something far more than the sum of their haunting, deeply impactful Trinity Sessions, a melancholic combining of country, folk, blues and echoing rock balladry. The Wilderness, due on March 27, certainly references that quietly assertive, deeply atmospheric tone — but it never capitulates to rote imitation. The Cowboy Junkies have grown too much, accomplished so many things, since then.
That’s perhaps best heard on “Damaged from the Start” — this song cycle’s creative and emotional zenith. As it unfolds, Margo Timmons makes a whispered, twilit entreaty: “Let’s just sit here a little bit longer with these bruised and battered hearts. Let’s just say they were damaged from the start.” But they never, ever stopped beating — testament to this group’s abiding faith, and even more abiding ambitions.
It’s taken some time, maybe longer than the Timmons siblings ever would have guessed, but this forthcoming Latent Recordings project is a masterwork success for the Cowboy Junkies — something that both reminds you of, and then finally supersedes, the shimmering decades-old successes of The Trinity Sessions.