On the whole, I’ve been surprised and disappointed by the lack of well-known musicians stepping up to the microphone and singing out for peace lately, especially considering the resurgence of folk and Americana styles and artists (the traditional harbingers of “music with a message”) in recent years. Perhaps it’s the atmosphere of fear and blind patriotism in our post-9/11, post-PATRIOT Act society (let us not forget the persecution of the Dixie Chicks following lead singer Natalie Maines’ negative remark about President Bush in March 2003), but aside from a few notable exceptions, it seems to me we’ve seen very little new music in the U.S. that has anything to say about the very public wars our country is waging in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For that reason in particular, I was very excited to hear about the Cowboy Junkies’ newest album, Early 21st Century Blues (released Aug. 16 of this year on Rounder Records, though it’s been available from the band’s Web site for some time longer), a collection of songs that wears its peace-sign-shaped heart proudly on its sleeve. The songs may not all be new, but their message is sadly still quite pertinent.
Early 21st Century Blues is essentially a collection of covers (along with two original songs by the band’s guitarist, Michael Timmins). Many of the songs come, either coincidentally or purposefully, in pairs: “License to Kill,” by Bob Dylan, and “Two Soldiers,” a traditional tune most recently covered by Dylan (on his 1993 album World Gone Wrong); “December Skies” and “This World Dreams Of,” the two original songs on the album, both based on literary sources; “Brothers Under the Bridge” and “You’re Missing,” by Bruce Springsteen; and two songs by ex-Beatles, John Lennon’s “I Don’t Want to De a Soldier” and George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity.” The album also includes Richie Havens’ “Handouts in the Rain,” the traditional spiritual “No More,” and U2’s “One.”
The Cowboy Junkies have had some major success with covers in the past, most notably their remake of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” which received massive airplay following its inclusion on the soundtrack of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. While nothing on this album is quite so catchy as that recording, most of these songs do have a lot more to say, and though it might have been interesting to hear more of what the Cowboys themselves had to say about war (even the two Timmins originals are based on lines from other authors), their excellent choice of songs by powerful writers from different eras illustrates the timelessness of their message. Incredibly, between the thematic links among songs and the band’s rearrangements of the music to suit its strengths, a listener unfamiliar with the authorship of the tunes might be convinced they were all written for this album.
“License to Kill” is a strong opener, with Cowboys vocalist Margo Timmins’ translucent and hypnotically smooth alto vocals a fine substitute for Dylan’s growl. What Timmins lacks in passion, she makes up for with the quiet confidence and ethereal beauty of her delivery, her softness immediately demanding the listener’s full attention and inviting careful contemplation of Dylan’s underrated tale of a soldier who can’t get over his experiences of violence (at least, that’s how I interpret it the meaning of Dylan’s songs, of course, is often in the eye of the beholder). Timmins’ voice is also an excellent asset in the album’s cover of “You’re Missing,” in which her delivery creates an oral portrait of a young widow, numb with pain and loss. Surprisingly, it also works very well as a foil/backup for guest vocalist Rebel’s spoken hip-hop delivery of new lyrics in the Cowboys’ take on “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier.” While some might find the inclusion of rap and drum machines on this song jarring amid the otherwise very spare and quiet collection, I found the difference in style a welcome contrast and the straightforward, passionate clarity of Rebel’s words one of the high points of the album. “December Skies” is the better of Timmins’ contributions; its chorus (borrowed from Timothy Findley’s book The Wars), “Time to kill our children and sing about it,” haunts the listener with doubts about sacrifice and patriotism long after the song is done. “One” is an interesting choice as a closer for the record. Though originally focused on a romantic relationship, in this context the song serves as a summation of the album’s message of unity over violence “We’re one, but we’re not the same. We’ve got to carry each other ”
The record is not flawless. There isn’t a lot of variation here the band’s dynamics range mostly from quiet to really quiet, and their style is static from song to song. The purpose of recording a cover is generally to bring something new to a song, and while these covers all sound different from their original versions, they sound an awful lot like each other here; unless you’re already a Cowboy Junkies fan, you may find your attention span sorely tested by midway through. The soft, crooning quality of Timmins’ voice and the similar, understated arrangements of all the songs as a whole create a droning sort of lullaby, despite the painful subject matter explored in the lyrics. In this contrast, one could nearly identify a sort of intentional satire of the way the media and our political leaders lull us all into a kind of waking sleep or numb impotence with their constant barrage of terrible news, couched in their insistence that there’s nothing we can do but shut up and support our leaders but that is probably reading a bit too much into it. It does lead me to my final thought, however, which is that the biggest thing missing from this album is any sort of solution, any sense of empowerment. There’s nothing new being said here, and frankly, nothing helpful. With the possible exceptions of “This World Dreams Of” and Rebel’s contribution, the entire record is a wash of uninvolved, unobtrusive sadness. The Cowboys set a mood of lamentation extremely well, but that mood doesn’t include much spirit or energy, and the end result is that the album feels like it’s giving up. That, right now, is the last thing the antiwar movement needs.
The strength of the album is its haunting sadness. If you feel like indulging in a little pity for a world sick to death of war, Early 21st Century Blues is definitely the album for you. But don’t forget: when the album’s over, the wars are still being fought, and it’s up to all of us to stop them.