Happy 20th Anniversary to Cowboy Junkies’ sixth studio album Lay It Down, originally released February 27, 1996.
Nearly thirty years ago and one year after their formation, Cowboy Junkies formally arrived by way of their 1986 debut album Whites Off Earth Now!!. Featuring just one original song and eight covers of compositions by Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bruce Springsteen and Big Joe Williams, the LP introduced the Toronto based band’s uniquely understated brand of country, blues and rock infused Americana.
Two years later, the quartet comprised of the sibling trio of Margo Timmins (vocals), Michael Timmins (chief songwriter, guitarist), and Peter Timmins (drummer), along with Alan Anton (bassist), experienced their breakthrough moment. Propelled by their enchanting renditions of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight,” as well as a handful of their own songs, the group’s sophomore album The Trinity Session was both a critical and commercial triumph.
Though I was familiar with and appreciated The Trinity Session when it originally surfaced, I admittedly wasn’t transformed into a Cowboy Junkies convert until two years later. Upon hearing their sprawling cover of the mystical Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues” on the stellar soundtrack to the 1990 film Pump Up the Volume, which was also included on Whites Off but in modified form, I was hooked. With Margo’s angelic voice and the band’s haunting arrangement still reverberating in my mind, I vowed to keep close tabs on the group during the years to come.
Not too long after releasing the solid efforts The Caution Horses (1990), Black Eyed Man (1992) and Pale Sun Crescent Moon (1993) in relatively quick succession, the band’s recording contract with RCA dissolved, presumably owing to the albums’ disappointing sales outside of the group’s native Canada. It didn’t take long for other labels to come knocking at the Junkies’ door, and they ultimately signed a new deal with Geffen Records, whose artist roster during the ‘90s included rock heavyweights Guns N' Roses, Nirvana, Sonic Youth and White Zombie.
Released at the end of February in 1996, the band’s sixth studio LP Lay It Down represented an album of firsts. Not only was it the group’s debut album for their new label, but it was their first album entirely comprised of original compositions. Not to mention their first album not entirely self-produced, as Michael Timmins shared production duties with the seasoned Athens, GA based producer John Keane, who has worked with 10,000 Maniacs, Billy Bragg, Vic Chesnutt, Indigo Girls, Taj Mahal, R.E.M., and Widespread Panic, among many others.
Most notably, with Lay It Down, Cowboy Junkies expanded upon their proven penchant for sparse soundscapes by summoning their guitar-heavy rock sensibilities for an all-around more adventurous, invigorated, and multi-textured song suite, relative to their previous efforts. Granted, upon its release, the album may have alienated some of the band’s most devoted champions, who naturally (and rather naively) expected another sparse and somber affair. In a 1996 interview with Network magazine, Margo addressed their fans’ expectations with a refreshingly confident, devil-may-care attitude, explaining:
To some people, yes, we're always supposed to be melancholy and slow and if we do anything different they're disappointed and that's too bad, but then we also hear the other side, “oh, it's another melancholy, slow, boring Cowboy Junkies record,” even when we were doing a song like “Murder, Tonight, In the Trailer Park” (from Black Eyed Man) where I was screaming, so you can't win. You just do what you want to do and what makes sense for the band at that time. You can't second guess yourself because it's really impossible to please everyone, so why bother.
While Lay It Down is certainly different and more varied in structure than its precursors, it nevertheless contains many of the band’s signature strengths. Namely the symbiotic connection between Margo’s soaring, sublime vocals and her older brother Michael’s superb, evocative lyrics, which, when bolstered by their bandmates’ masterful musicianship, yields songs that examine the human condition with unequivocal grace and beauty. And of course, their fair share of melancholy.
The three tracks that kick off the album are all standouts, harbingers of the ensuing album that sound unlike any other Cowboy Junkies recording that has come before. A poignant exploration of the doubts one harbors about the decisions he or she has made in life, the elegiac opener “Something More Besides You” establishes the album’s pervasive thematic thread, which revolves around the often fine line between the fragility and permanency of love. The song also captures the band’s nuanced sonic direction, beginning with deceptively gentle guitar strumming and Margo’s hushed vocals, before the distortion drenched rush of electric guitar abruptly and thrillingly takes hold fifty seconds in.
The amps are dialed up a generous notch on the next track, the rollicking, indie rock indebted groove of “A Common Disaster,” which finds Margo dissecting the psychology of diving headlong into a relationship that may very well prove disastrous, but harbors the potential of finding love nonetheless. With melodic guitar riffs reminiscent of Nirvana’s “All Apologies,” the title track explores the relinquishing of all life’s worries, conceits, and possessions as one confronts the inevitability of death.
Other indispensable highlights include the twin takes of the gripping “Come Calling,” with Margo delivering each version from the perspective of a man and a woman, with heartbreaking ruminations throughout, like “Odd how the darkness always makes us whisper / and with the last of the sun / you can feel the approach of the winter / Now is the time of each day / that I desperately miss her / I suppose I will learn how to live my life without her.” Though the lyrics inspired by a couple’s battle with Alzheimer’s are identical across both, the arrangements are quite different, the more uptempo “His Song” juxtaposed with the substantially more subdued counterpart “Her Song.”
Equally poignant, albeit in a more euphoric sense, is the shimmering, exquisitely crafted pop-rock ballad “Angel Mine,” an earnest reverie about embracing the imperfections of loved ones, with an unforgettable chorus that I still find myself singing randomly from time to time: “I can't promise that I'll grow those wings / or keep this tarnished halo shined / but I'll never betray your trust / angel mine.” More closely harkening back to their older, sparser fare, the solemn “Lonely Sinking Feeling” and “Bea’s Song (River Song Trilogy: Part II)” are two of the finest torch songs the band has ever made.
Two and half years after Lay It Down was released, the Junkies’ released Miles From Our Home (1998), their second and final album under contract with Geffen. Coincidentally, I was interning at Geffen’s Sunset Boulevard offices at the time, during the summer between my junior and senior years at UCLA. I vividly recall being quite chuffed when I was handed a pair of tickets to their August show at Royce Hall, the most iconic building on my alma mater’s campus. Their performance was nothing short of stunning, as was the opening act Over the Rhine, whom I heard for the first time that day and have followed fervently ever since.
As the concert concluded and my friend and I left the hall to grab a post-show drink off campus, we discussed what a shame it was that Cowboy Junkies’ commercial success didn’t necessarily match the same heights as their critical acclaim. Nevertheless, we both agreed that few other bands have been as steadfast in their devotion to their songcraft as the Junkies, and their prolific and consistently excellent repertoire of recordings, coupled with their stellar live performances, provides more than enough evidence of this. And while many would likely identify The Trinity Session as the band’s finest moment on record, for me, Lay It Down remains the paramount achievement of their dignified career and indelible discography to date.