Cowboy Junkies: “Demons”

Originally, this was going to be a full-fledged collaboration between the Cowboy Junkies and an in-the-flesh Vic Chesnutt; Chesnutt took his own life shortly before the recording was to begin, and the Junkies chose to continue the project, transforming it into a collaboration with Chesnutt’s own restless spirit. It became a covers album, in essence, every song here written by Chesnutt, but what’s not quite clear to me is whether the album was always going to be called Demons, or whether that’s what it became once it went from a lively collaborative process to a haunted one. Either way, it’s an evocative title, and I dare say it can be taken in a couple of ways. Clearly, of course, Chesnutt had his demons, and the number of songs here that offer troublingly prophetic indications of his deep depression and ultimate  departure makes, at times, for a harrowing and poignant listen.

But I think the Junkies have some demons of their own, and at times this record sounds almost like an exorcism. Clearly, they loved Vic Chesnutt, and I can’t imagine a more primal or perfect tribute to him than a recording here of “Flirted With You All My Life,” a recent Chesnutt song (taken from his final album, in fact) that seems to set the blood to racing through the veins of this spirited and deeply felt music, vivifying everything here and transforming it from something elegiac into a true act of catharsis. The song is lively, almost howling. Chesnutt’s lyric addresses his life-long melancholy and his frequent temptations toward taking his own life. The song hinges on four small words– “I am not ready”— that, in Chesnutt’s own recording, signaled a sort of half-hearted attempt to keep pushing forward. Margot Timmins delivers it here as a prayer, almost a chant– the way she belts it out, over and over, it’s as if she thinks she can will the words into reality and bring Chesnutt back.

Death looms over everything here, actually, but the rather astonishing thing about Demons is that it’s not an inconsolable, really not even a melancholy kind of record: It’s not a light listen by any means, but it is exhilaratingly beautiful and utterly devastating all at once. A record borne by death becomes an aggressive assertion of life, and indeed, it’s a thrill to hear just how much life is left in this band, now in its 26th year of recording. Demons is the second entry in their Nomad Series, a concentrated effort to record in new places and different ways, which resulted in the very lovely Renmin Park, a sort of synthesis of the band’s tried-and-true folk-rock sound with Chinese elements. This one is less exotic but, to my ears, it’s an even better, more explosive and powerful record, the sound of a band fully rejuvenated. They haven’t rocked this much in years; befitting both the band and the songs, a lot of this stuff exists in sort of a wistful, narcotic haze, but everything is very much grounded here in a slightly bluesy, always tuneful sort of rock and roll. They even break out the brass section on a couple of tracks, sounding triumphant in a way that is actually rather fitting for this life-affirming music.

Frankly, it’s the best Cowboy Junkies album since Trinity Sessions, but I’m also inclined to say– with no hint of sarcasm or smirk– that this is the very best Vic Chesnutt album. By that I mean, it feels, in a sense, like it is every bit the collaboration it was always intended to be. His spirit is very much in the room with these musicians, who seem at times to be a mouthpiece, channeling his spirit from somewhere in the great beyond. I mean no disrespect when I say that Chesnutt was never a technically gifted singer, and his albums often seemed like they downplayed the beauty intrinsic to the songs in favor of a sort of creepy sense of the peculiar and the macabre. Frequently, his loveliest songs were intentionally given the ugliest arrangements, as if to obscure just how directly emotive the material really was. Here, the Cowboy Junkies wear heart and melody on sleeve, and even when they tackle one of Chesnutt’s darker, more sinister short stories– I’m thinking of “West of Rome”– they make it beautiful and vibrant. These are songs that assert their own right to be here, their own voice, in a way their composer would never allow, and in that sense they feel to me to be the ultimate tribute.

There’s good stuff all over this one, the performances so strong across the board that picking a favorite is tough. Aside from the aforementioned “Flirted,” I’m rather keen on “See You Around” right now, which exists on the bluesy tip but takes on an almost sing-along quality and has a beautiful, shimmering organ sound. I like the way “Strange Language” seems to reach into a noisy patch and pull out something really tuneful, and the almost noir-ish treatment given to “Betty Lonely.” But the overall impact of this thing is both founded on and somehow transcendent of the quality of individual songs; it stands, ultimately, as a rousing piece of work that pulls life out of death, and there’s nothing else even remotely like that in the Cowboy Junkies catalog.

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