If anyone has the right to make an album about family, it’s the Cowboy Junkies. Driven by the brother/sister combo of lead songwriter/guitarist Michael Timmons and vocalist Margo Timmons, the band also boasts a third Timmons, brother Peter, on drums. Since debuting in 1986, and capturing the public eye in 1988 with their languid cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”, the Junkies’ sound has grown increasingly thorny. It’s an evolution that serves them well here, because, as most people can attest, family is complicated.
It’s obvious from At the End of Paths Taken‘s packaging that the band is well aware of this. The front cover shows a rope cinched into heart-shaped knot, while the back cover shows the same rope frayed to within a few strands of breaking. The lyrics booklet portrays a young hand and an old hand playing tug of war.
“Brand New World” kicks the album off by maintaining that sense of ambiguity, observing, “Mouths to feed / Shoes to buy / Rent to pay / Tears to dry/ Brand new world / I can’t relate / Let us choose / To not partipate” before laying out thoughts that show such decisions hold their own secret consequences. The title track is no less comforting: “Here we stand at the end of paths taken… The slow decline / The crumbling foundation, the stations, and now the cross / But we’re still lost.” Even “My Little Basquiat”, which teems with idyllic images of children playing on kitchen floors and in playgrounds, holds no promises that any happiness awaits in adulthood. At this point in their lives, the Timmons’ are of the age where time is divided between young children and aging parents, so it’s no wonder the album feels so ambivalent, and why every moment of sunshine casts the requisite shadows.
Befitting such tangled lyrical territory, Paths is probably the group’s most sonically accomplished disc yet. Throughout the album, string arrangements courtesy of Canadian composer Henry Kucharzyk provide a sense of tension, while tasteful piano chords evoke the minimalist melodies of someone like Leonard Cohen. “My Little Basquiat” swings between measured piano chords and stormy guitar lines. The somewhat whimsical “Someday Soon” features Margo and Michael singing together over a simple acoustic arrangement. “Mountain” is a swirl of guitars, strings, and even a recording of the Timmons’ father speaking. “Cutting Board Blues”, easily the disc’s loudest cut, is a maelstrom of bitter lyrics and fractured blues guitar.
Even amidst its fury, though, “Cutting Board Blues” underscores a crucial element of the Junkies sound: Even at their angriest, or saddest, or even occasionally happiest, they’re always in complete control. “Cutting Board Blues” sounds like Timmons is losing his mind on guitar until you realize there’s not a stray note to be found. It’s the most obvious example of how, in some ways, Timmons’ guitar playing has grown more aggressive over the years. He’s all over the album, though, weaving threads of biting guitar through song after song.
Paths, however, doesn’t have a signature sound, despite Margo Timmons’ constant ability to sing her brother’s lyrics with soul and empathy; in some ways, it’s all over the place, veering from tender ballads to feedback workouts and back again. But that seems appropriate, given the album’s emphasis on family, an institution that can cover its own breathtaking distances in a short period of time.