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Published: 2001/05/21
by David Steinberg

"Open" – Cowboy Junkies

Cowboy
Junkies

Latent Recordings/Zoe Records 3719

Cowboy Junkies are known for writing slow, sad, wrenching songs. Most
of their albums have highlighted minimalistic approach. The last few,
however, have had a more mainstream sound. "Open" completely
reverses that trend. In doing so, the band has created their finest
album since "Pale Sun Crescent Moon", if not their best album
ever.

"Open" arrived – appropriately enough – on a chilly, rainy day. I
put it in my CD player, hit play, and was stunned to hear feedback.
The album opens with about 30 seconds of feedback. I Did It
All For You starts up for real, and I had to advance to the next
track for a second to make sure my copy wasn't defective. The
fading in and out was by design though. I Did It All For You is
about insanity. Rather than presenting it as an abstract topic,
this song makes the listener live it. It's hard to get a solid grasp on the
music as there are brief drop outs and delay effects on the vocals
and quick channel changes. The lyrics are equally
unclear.

"He stuck his fingers in his back to count the holes he bore

Doused them all in kerosene and moved to bolt the door.

(I did it all for you)

Called his dad and said goodbye as his lit match hit the floor
.
High above I look below and watch them slowly go."

That the narrator is killing himself is obvious, but is this a
murder/suicide?
Is he just destroying some objects that remind him of his family?
Does he think that he's killing people when he's not? The listener
is as unsure as the character.

I Did It All For You segues into Dragging Hooks. On
the Junkies' recent tour (documented on the live album "Waltz Across
America"), they've started to jam a lot more. Songs such as
Southern Rain and – most definitely – Blue Guitar have gained
their
power as much from the guitar and bass interplay as they have from Michael's
lyrics and Margo's singing. Those lessons get their first real studio
work out in Dragging Hooks. Clocking in at nearly eight minutes,
with
two real jams, this song continues the mood from I Did It All For
You.

Dragging Hooks is the third song of a trilogy. The first song
is just a couple choosing to make their life by a river. Nothing
too special there. The second part though, starts to get dark. At
the end, Bea is drowning – most likely mentally, not literally – while
her husband doesn't notice. The third part calls into question
whether or not the drowning was symbolic. It's John dealing with the
aftermath, and trying to rescue her, either from a death or a
breakdown. This is intense music, scary, powerful, and raw.

Bread and Wine follows. I'd heard this song on a bootleg, and it
sounded like a throwaway piece, but it works really well in this
context. By this point, a straightforward tale of a woman in a
loving relationship while wishing she was with someone else is almost
cheery. While the first two songs are dreamy, Bread and Wine rocks
out some. It's a welcome relief, and fortification for the journey
still to come.

While Upon Still Waters isn’t a very impressive song, Dark Hole
Again follows. This doesn't pull any punches. No vagueness, no
analogies that make one wonder what exactly happened. This is just a
dark song about a dark mood. It's a cry for help, help that might not
be coming:

"Stuck in that dark hole again.

Someone throw me a ladder

On which I can depend

Someone give me a handhold

To help me ascend

Someone give me a reason

To start up these walls again."

This is a another jamming song. The last four minutes are just Margo and backup singer Karen Bergquist singing variants on, "Dark Clouds
Again/Grey Clouds Again/Rip Tides again" while the band jams below
them.

There is a change of tone for the second half of the album. Instead
of being about immersion into the mood of the characters, it switches
to a more detached mode. The music is more upbeat and healthier.
The lyrics, while still not euphoric, are more balanced. Small Swift
Birds is the clearest example of the change. It starts out not
with the music, but with a count off. "Small Swift Birds, Part 3.
1 – 2 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4". Before the song has even started, one is
reminded that this is just a song. Despite having lines like, "the
wisdom of a lifetime always appears untapped/Paradise once given will
always be taken back," the song is bookmarked with, "I've been told
that's it's just the way life goes". Instead of being feedback
drenched, the music is almost danceable. The lives of the characters
aren't any better, but the way that they deal with it has changed.

While the intensity of the first five songs
is lost, the second half is a commentary on the first half. It's more
interesting to be swept up into intense moments, but there reaches
a point where one has to be able to learn some self control. In the same way
that Dark Clouds Again sums up the first half of
"Open", Close My Eyes wraps up the second. "I'm going to
close my eyes/ And walk away".

The album ends with the feedback
that started I Did It All For You. Close My Eyes is advice for
the man in I Did It All For You. What did him – and perhaps his
family – in was not whatever drove him to insanity. It was his
inability to close his eyes and walk away. More than a collection of
songs, "Open" is an intense examination of the nature of
depression and sanity and a most welcome addition to the Cowboy
Junkies discography.

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