The latest Cowboy Junkies album, Renmin Park, is something of a beginning for the Canadian quartet that came to prominence with the release of The Trinity Sessions 22 years ago. The circumstances that led to Renmin Park, and the next three Cowboy Junkies albums for that matter, are an almost perfect storm of creative conceptualism and execution.
The first step in the process concerned the end of the Junkies’ contractual obligations, allowing them the freedom to pursue any path they chose. The second step came in 2008 when Michael Timmins and his family spent three months in China absorbing everything from the culture to the varied perspectives in the local, regional and national music scenes. The third step was translating the inspiration of the first two situations into the first album of a proposed four-album cycle, the work that ultimately became Renmin Park.
In most respects, Renmin Park exhibits all of the sonic touchstones that have defined the Junkies for the past two and a half decades, from Margo Timmins’ ethereally weary voice to Michael Timmins’ soothing, searing guitar to the heartbeat of Peter Timmins’ bass and Alan Anton’s drums. The subtler difference is the conceptual nature of Renmin Park, inspired by Michael’s China revelations and made possible by the band’s distinct lack of a label overseer.
On the surface, Renmin Park is a fictional love story that sprang from Michael Timmins’ imagination following his Chinese excursion. But at a deeper level, the album represents the creative unshackling of a band that has long wanted to do more than just sing songs and sell albums. Renmin Park is punctuated with field recordings of Chinese life that Michael captured during his various experiences, and the Junkies even cover a couple of icons from China’s Rock scene — Zuoxiao Zuzhou (“I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side”) and Xu Wei (“My Fall”) — translated by the young man who introduced Michael to the artists during his visit.
Both Chinese songs fit well within the Junkies’ oeuvre, particularly in the context of this album, which runs the gamut from the quiet, desperate beauty of the title track and the discordant haze of feedback and rolling sonic thunder of “Sir Francis Bacon at the Net” to the more conventional Junkies atmosphere of “Stranger Here” and the thumping syncopated hymnal of “(You’ve Got to Get) A Good Heart.”
Renmin Park is the first volume of the Junkies’ proposed Nomad Series, which is to be followed by an album of Vic Chesnutt covers, and two additional albums which are still in the creation phase. All of it will be documented in a book that will explore each album’s inspiration and feature paintings by Enrique Martinez Celaya, whose work appears in the design of Renmin Park. It’s a fascinating project and it begins with Renmin Park, a wonderful extension and expansion of the Cowboy Junkies’ long musical journey.