All That Reckoning
“Welcome to the age of disillusion,” sings Margo Timmins toward the beginning of All That Reckoning, the first Cowboy Junkies album released in what she then calls “the days of death and anger.” These are signs of the times: The Junkies’ stock in trade is the ease with which they navigate the mysterious terrain of human intimacy and longing, yet here they are, bearing witness to our collective anxieties with their usual solemn gravitas. It might be a slight stretch to say that this is their take-it-to-the-streets punk rock record—they’re too regal, too elegant for anything so mercenary, preferring instead to comment from a vantage point of weary and hard-won wisdom—and yet, it may be the most aggressive Cowboy Junkies album yet, as visceral and emotionally direct as anything they’ve ever done.
Timmins and her brother/bandmate Michael have long had a fascination with loud/soft dynamics, going back to their landmark Trinity Session LP, where single-mic intimacy somehow made their whispered songs feel howling and primitive. Often, All That Reckoning pulses with rock and roll energy: “Sing Me a Song” pushes into the red with brawny riffs and a thunderous backbeat, Margo’s distorted vocals fighting to be heard amidst the din. “All That Reckoning Part 1” and “When We Arrive” both nod toward early-’90s alt-rock with woozy bass pushing through electric guitar strumming. And even when the songs are slow, as they often are, they still tend to sound oceanic: “The Things We Do to Each Other” starts folksy but roars in the end, while “Wooden Stairs” updates the Trinity Session quietude with a swirl of dissonance and minimal piano plunking. By the time the spare, acoustic “The Possessed” shows up to close the album—the most featherweight song here, and the most in-character for the Junkies—it feels like a massive sea change.
But these are desperate times; let us not talk falsely now. On “Wooden Stairs,” Margo pines for a simpler time that’s probably never coming back. It’s all the more painful for following “The Things We Do to Each Other,” which begins: “Fear is not so far from hate / So if you get the folks to fear / It only takes one small twist / To kick it up a gear.” She sings as though standing on the precipice, the point of no return—or, perhaps, like she fears that point was passed long ago. Cowboy Junkies have never reckoned with the times as vividly or as pointedly as they do here. Michael says that some of these ideas—including his line about “the age of disillusion”—sat in a notebook for years, waiting for just the right time to blossom. The time, for better or worse, is now—and though All That Reckoning can be bruising, it’s also consoling in its candor and its clarity.