Album Review: Cowboy Junkies – Demons

Vic Chesnutt wasn’t simply one of the best songwriters of his generation; he was also one of the most idiosyncratic. The Georgia native dreamed up compositions that sounded like they were tailored specifically to his own physical instrument: The melodies were often determined by that froggy croon of his, and he seemed to choose lyrics based on which words he could mispronounce, which vowels he could sustain curiously, and which accents he could shift around. His rhyme schemes were loose and unpredictable, often driven by proper nouns and unexpected combinations of words and ideas. More crucially, he fully inhabited the first-person pronouns of his songs, as if each emanated from a very specific perspective, which meant he could sell a line like “I was in your place of employment, crying in my hummus” with a perfect, unforced balance of the truly tragic and the wonderfully absurd.

The downside, of course, is that Chesnutt’s songs are so tied to his performative abilities that they can be particularly difficult, if not entirely impossible, to cover. As the 1996 tribute album Sweet Relief II proved, his songs are best heard in his own voice, in his own meter, in his own eccentricities. However, if any band should be able to pull off a full album of Chesnutt covers, it ought to be the Cowboy Junkies, who toured with him in the 1990s and played with him on their 2008 release Trinity Revisited.

More to the point, they got their start in the late 1980s as a glorified cover band reimagining signature tracks by Springsteen, the Velvet Underground and Patsy Cline. They’ve proven not only durable—turning a sound defined but also limited by Margo Timmins’ mellifluous vocals into an unlikely quarter-century career—but also adventurous in the way they reinterpret melody and mood.

So it’s almost a shock that Demons isn’t better than it is. The second in their vaguely defined Nomad Series (which kicked off with last year’s Renmin Park), the album collects eleven carefully chosen covers from every corner of Chesnutt’s long career. It’s a fan’s tracklist, eschewing obvious choices for what seem more like personal favorites.

And yet, too many songs fall into a safe midtempo range, which doesn’t give Timmins or the band much to do but plod through turgid runthroughs. Especially in the middle, Demons sags precipitously, sapping the life out of some of these songs. “Ladle” sounds simply dour instead of complexly worried, and Chesnutt’s accusatory lyrics lose their bite, if not their wit. Similarly, “Supernatural” sounds too grounded and workmanlike to live up to its title, and “West of Rome” languishes in this setting, with neither Margo nor guitarist Michael Timmins sounding especially engaged.

For a band so identified with a languid style of folk rock, the Junkies have never shied away from making noise, and in this regard, Michael has always been the band’s unheralded asset—whether chiming in with subdued punctuation on “Betty Lonely” or ripping through a triumphal solo on “Strange Language.” That measured boisterousness suits Chesnutt’s songs well, but the most successful cover here is also the most difficult. “Flirted With You All My Life” has become Chesnutt’s de facto epitaph, plainly and plaintively addressing his attraction to and repulsion from death as he recounts his own suicide attempts.

It’s harrowing and powerful, especially in this sadly posthumous setting, yet it’s the most spirited song on Demons, an upbeat gospel-rock number that wisely and generously eschews commiseration for celebration. Like Chesnutt, the Junkies realize that the song is less about the horrors of death than the joys of life, and they transform it into a fond valedictory, an anti-suicide note that spells out both Chesnutt’s and the Junkies’ musical motivations. He played to keep death away.

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