How do you pay tribute to an artist dogged by demons? That’s the challenge that faced veteran Canadian alt-country ensemble Cowboy Junkies on Volume 2 of their Nomads series, ominously and aptly titled Demons.
The late, lost songwriter Vic Chesnutt, whom the group knew and had previously collaborated with, must surely have cast a long shadow over this project. They’d discussed doing an album together as early as 2007, when Chesnutt was a guest on Trinity Revisited.
It wasn’t to be: Chesnut overdosed in 2009. Instead, on Demons, the Cowboy Junkies eulogize the man with his own material.
Having struggled through his life carrying the weight of his many challenges — adoption, addiction, disability and depression among them – Chesnutt soars in spirit on this heartbreaking, beautiful tribute. The album functions as a cosmic collaboration, the Cowboy Junkies’ signature roots sound serving as the perfect backdrop for Chesnutt’s dark, lonesome lyrical exploration.
Like Townes Van Zandt and Warren Zevon before him, Chesnutt danced with demons for his life’s work. (Coincidentally, both Zevon and Chesnutt collaborated with Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who produced Chesnutt’s first two albums after discovering him in a bar.)
Vic Chesnutt tragi-comically declared that he had tried suicide a few times “but it didn’t take.” He ultimately succumbed in 2009 to an overdose of muscle relaxants in what’s widely viewed as a final, successful attempt to do away with himself.
This is grim stuff. And yet, he documented that demon-dance he did, so daringly that beauty shines from within the darkest of corners.
The album works because it faces the Demons of its title head-on. “I’ve Been Playing the Wrong Piano”, declares the opening track, Margo Timmins’ unmistakable voice wrapping itself gloriously around those desperate words.
Soon the desperation grows deadly: “I’ve Been Flirting With You All My Life” is the lyric lament in track 3, as Chesnutt’s ambivalent relationship with death comes to the fore:
“Oh death, you hector me
Decimate those dear to me
Tease me with your sweet release
You are cruel and you are constant
When my ma was cancer-sick
She fought but then succumbed to it
But you made her beg for it
Sweet Jesus, please, I’m ready”
Later, in “Supernatural”, we hear Timmins channeling this ghostlike declaration from Chesnutt:
“Out of body experience
I flew around my hospital room once
On intravenous demerol
It weren’t supernatural
This is haunting to hear from beyond the grave, from a self-declared atheist who ultimately administered his own fatal dose of drugs. (Even more haunting is Chesnutt’s own voice in the intro to “When the Bottom Fell Out”, the album’s final track.)
Chesnutt the lyricist was gifted, graceful, brave and blunt, and Demons is as much a work of poetry as of music. Still, it would be a mistake to judge any album by its words alone. Though his songs were typically simply framed – wheelchair-bound Chesnutt was a distinctive but not a virtuosic guitarist – they were often surprisingly melodic.
Oddly, Demons is in parts highly catchy. “Flirted With You…”, “Supernatural”, and “Strange Language” are just three of a passel of songs that demand to be sung along with, among more somber works.
Credit Cowboy Junkies, though, for striking the perfect musical balance on Demons. It takes humility to bring another artist’s gifts to the fore, and the peculiarity of Chesnutt’s gifts and the circumstances of his death must have posed a significant challenge. The band has met the challenge by bringing the best of their own distinctive sound to the studio, uplifting Chesnutt’s material in the process.
Margo Timmins’ voice has never sounded more gorgeous, soaring with the angels and whispering with the ghosts, while Michael Timmins’ crunchy electric guitar sound gives the demons their due from moment one. Always tasteful on the drums, Peter Timmins is at times eerily sparse on this recording, over Alan Anton’s deep bass alternately lurking and looming as the song requires.
“Honorary Junkie” Jeff Bird’s mandolin is used sparingly here, but perfectly: it’s that unmistakable arpeggio off the top of “Supernatural” that instantly defines it as a Cowboy Junkies song, and lingering licks in the background of West of Rome do a lot with a little. Joby Baker’s keyboards are much more in evidence, creating spooky illustrations – “Betty Lonely” – is a terrific example – for even spookier stories throughout.
Woodwinds and horns, again used sparingly but effectively on “West of Rome,” “Strange Language” and “We Hovered With Short Wings” augment the familiar colours of the Cowboy Junkies musical palate. Collectively, the instrumentation and arrangements employed on Demons define a sonic landscape worthy of any album in the Cowboy Junkies canon.
Cowboy Junkies have long since earned and assured their own living legacy. With Demons, they’ve helped a friend and fellow musician stake out a spot in the musical firmament. Vic Chesnutt could have asked for no better eulogy than the one Cowboy Junkies have delivered on Demons.
How fitting for a wordsmith of his worth that it’s a memorial sung in his own, aching words. Cowboy Junkies have given Vic Chesnutt’s songs wings, not short ones made for hovering, but strong ones made to soar. On Demons, they do.
For those not familiar with his work, Vic Chesnutt’s Tiny Desk Concert at NPR is an ideal introduction.