You could forgive any band entering their 25th year for sticking to a well-worn formula. Yet Renmin Park finds Canadian songwriter Michael Timmins and his Cowboy Junkies entering an ambitious and experimental period. The album is the first in a series of four very different releases planned over the next 18 months and was inspired by a three-month stay that Timmins and his family spent in China, when he took his two adopted daughters back to the land of their birth.
The songs are peppered with everyday sounds recorded in and around the small town of Jingjiang. Most comically, Sir Francis Bacon At The Net is built on a percussive loop of grunts provided by two early morning badminton players. Whilst the odd warbling chant and schoolchildren’s voices of A Walk In The Park and the busy rhythms of You’ve Got To Get A Good Heart also make for intriguing soundscapes. Yet none really bear repeated listening.
In an acknowledgement of these oddities, the tracklisting more or less alternates between them and classic Cowboy Junkies. The brushed drums, slide guitar and Rhodes organ riff of Little Dark Heart and the haunting acoustic strum of the title track provide the perfect backdrop for Michael’s sister Margo’s trademark yearning and atmospheric vocals. Renmin Park translates as “People’s Park” and this song sets up a fictional love story between two people – one Chinese, one foreign – making ill-fated plans to meet by the banks of the Yangtze River. This narrative was originally intended to span the whole album and perhaps could have provided much needed cohesion.
Strangely, the standout track and most typical of their sound is not a Cowboy Junkies composition at all. High profile Chinese artist Zuoxiao Zuzhou I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side is leant a wonderful cinematic sweeping quality right from the opening lines “You throw away the gun, did I tell you what’s to be done, I need it to kill just one”. Subtly waltzing pianos and dusty melodrama sit easily here with traditional Chinese stringed instruments. The album’s other cover, Xu Wei‘s My Fall, is also a highlight and has the mystical melodramatic shades of an eastern Bond theme in its opening bassline before a catchy chorus swoops in.
Lyrical themes are also wide in scope, with Cicadas dedicated to the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre and A Few Bags Of Grain describing the shame felt by daughters who feel themselves to be ‘worthless’ in China. As musical travelogue, this album succeeds in strongly evoking the culture and sensibility of a place. As a 14-track long Cowboy Junkies album, it’s a fascinating if slightly flawed experiment.