David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 214: The Cowboy Junkies (Bread And Wine)

January 3, 2023

For the life of me, I will never understand how some bands and songwriters can't seem to receive accolades they so richly deserve.  The Canadian band The Cowboy Junkies, and especially primary songwriter, Michael Timmins, may be at the top of my underappreciated list.

If The Cowboy Junkies are recognized for anything, it is probably for the amazing vocal talents of Michael's sister, Margo, the lead singer.  While she's worthy of any and all praise, for that voice alone, one cannot diminish how that voice carries the often dark, soul-searching lyrics provided by Michael. It makes me wonder how she looks at early drafts of his songs, wondering how she will reach the darkest places of her own soul to carry off the vocals.

For most of their outputs prior to 2000, Michael Timmons' darkness embedded primarily in some of the ways love can get twisted between bad men and good women or bad women and good men. "Misguided Angel," "Black Eyed Man," and "Hunted" were all impressively disturbing, but seemed in line with a dark undercurrent well established by musicians like Johnny Cash.

That all seemed to get elevated by 2001's Open, an ironic title for a collection of songs that seem to rip open the darkest parts of Michael, and by extension, Margo Timmons. The opening song, "I Did It All For You," lays bare from the first lines:

"She took his dentures from his mouth/

and placed them in her own/

Took a shovel from the shed/

and then dragged him from their home."

(The second stanza is even more bleak.)

Then, Michael endures his sister to the 7-plus minute "Dragging Hooks," in which Margo repeatedly sings, "can't lose this taste of this river mud/black water in my lungs" as the song recants missing people perhaps found in the dragging hooks searching the river.

There's a lot of sin in those first two songs, which makes "Bread And Wine," the next song, spectacularly potentially redemptive. Here the sin returns to the place which makes us feel least uncomfortable, the bedroom. This time the sex doesn't represent the cheating, it's the heart held back for someone else that defines the cheating. Michael's lyrics and Margo's voice bring great exoticism to one of the best openings for any song:

Well, I'm lyin' in my bed/

A tangle of arms and legs/

But the one I'm with/

Is not the one bouncing 'round in my head.

From there, we hear the confession of an apparently happily married person "graced by the gift of a golden wedding band," but not from the one "I'm dreaming of." "Bread and wine/bread and wine," the chorus goes after that first stanza, "your heart ain't nearly as guilty as mine." One can't help but remember the backlash against Jimmy Carter when he said he had lusted in his heart. How many of us have "a dark, heavy heart," a "soul full of holes"? 

Whereas the music had been somber and sparse throughout "I Did It For You" and "Dragging Hooks," here The Cowboy Junkies come alive, especially Timmons #3, Peter, who can finally pull out his full drum kit. When Margo wraps up the opening stanza with "I could turn this into song or cheap fantasy," the former has definitely beat out the latter.

Later, the sin grows larger, when the guilty heart's been replaced by "thoughts [not] nearly as wicked as mine" or a "cross ain't nearly as heavy as mine." The "line in my head from an old gospel song" that Timmons can't quite recreate is a perfect representation of a person caught between right and wrong, good and bad, heaven and hell.

For whatever redemptive power the Timmons seek in "Bread And Wine," it appears potentially complete with the next song "Upon Still Waters" where the narrator describes seeing a man "all alone out walking upon still waters." However, the next song puts Margo/Michael into a "Dark Hole Again," another long song where Margo sings of a watery death, "caught in this rip tide again/my mouth wide open/the sea pouring in." At every moment where Open seems to provide hope and reparation, there are two more that undercut that. And through it all is Margo's voice, her singing her own "legendary journeys made on fragile hollow wings" ("Small Swift Birds").

I am not sure what it says about me that Open is my favorite Cowboy Junkies' album. For the first time with this song series, I wanted to write about all songs on an album. My thoughts aren't as consistently dark, nor is my faith as consistently anchored, as conveyed in these songs but I'm so open to the tales they tell about humankind. In the end, I think I am as devout as anyone in looking to be saved, in begging for someone "to be my bread and wine."

The Cowboy Junkies. "Bread and Wine." Open. Zoe Records, 2001. Link here.

Day 213: Styx "Castle Walls"

Day 215: Sleeper "Vegas"

See complete list here.