The Wilderness is the fourth and final volume in the Cowboy Junkies' ambitious Nomad Series, a project that saw them release four albums of new material in an 18-month period. Earlier volumes were focused tightly around various unconnected themes; inspirations from a trip to China, a set of noisy acid blues, and an entire album's worth of Vic Chesnutt covers as a loving tribute to a departed friend. These conceptually sound chapters bring us to The Wilderness, ten songs centered on no fixed theme, but rather traversing a wider array of emotional settings. Unlike the previous installments of the Nomad Series, this album plays out the most like a standard Cowboy Junkies album. All the songs are penned by guitarist Michael Timmins and sung by his sister Margo Timmins with what has come to be her signature hushed yet powerful delivery. Tunes coast on a mostly mellow sound somewhere between alt-country and subdued college rock circa 1991 with occasional mandolin flourishes by Jeff Bird or lead guitar outbursts from Matt Bailey. Well into the second decade of their career during the writing of this album, topics like parenthood and getting older come up more than late-twenties existential ennui, but are addressed with the same lost, wandering uncertainty that characterized the band's earlier work. "Idle Tales" sums this up pretty succinctly with lines like "these idle tales we need to keep us going, these tales are for our children." The song sees one generation passing their foggy incertitude on to the next. Appropriately, The Wilderness is a very wintery album, with different explorations of long, dark nights and their different shades of loneliness. "Angels in the Wilderness" paints a scene of snowy woods and limited sunlight as a metaphor for a dying love. Elsewhere, "The Confession of Georgie E" happens in a smoky bar room deep in the cold months, the cycles of life and death, romance and betrayal interweaving with the seasonal cycles. The rocking "Fuck, I Hate the Cold" takes a more direct approach, with Timmins belting out "Maybe I'm just getting old, 'cause fuck, I hate the cold!" while running over a list of complaints about winter touring and too many years of it. It's difficult to see exactly how The Wilderness fits into any larger series, but that's beside the point. Free from vague thematic restraints, this volume works as the most immediately listenable and comprehensible of the Nomad Series and stands alone as another strong volume of the craft Cowboy Junkies have been honing for years.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas