Renmin Park is a bit of a departure from the Cowboy Junkies normal output. I suppose you could almost call it a concept album. Inspired by Cowboy's mainstay Michael Timmin and his family's 3 month stay in China, it is the first of four planned release over the next 18 mths under the banner of 'The Nomad Series'. Based around characters Timmin encountered in the small Chinese city of Jingjiang on the Yangtze river, he describes Renmin Park as 'a fictional love story about two people whose two worlds will forever keep them apart'. The songs are a mix of sounds he collected on portable recording devices during his travels, character based original compositions and a couple of covers of songs by two of China's biggest rock stars.
We are enticed into into the atmosphere of China with a broad spectrum of samples ranging from a military brass band to children playing and traditional singing to the cacophony of traffic that fills the streets before giving way to the sparse and beautiful title track, where we find ourselves in familiar Cowboy's territory. For a band that are know for their bleak soundtracks, Sir Francis Bacon At The Net and the cover of Zuoxiao Zuzhou's I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side sees them darker than I've ever heard them before. The latter is strangely beguiling while the former left me bemused by the unintelligible lyrics and feedback laden backing.
The tempo heads upbeat with the wonderful (You Got To Get) A Good Heart that sound uncannily like something you would expect to here from Beck while Cicadas uses a sample of the little insects to great effect for this atmospheric ramble that metamorphosis into a different beast towards the end of the song with a decidedly funky twist. A Walk In The Park is perhaps the one track that leaves the listener no way into it, not because the lyrics are sung in Chinese but because of the deeply unpleasant nature of the singers voice. A truly, truly awful song.
I've been a fan of the Cowboy Junkies for more years than I care to remember and this for me is their most disappointing album to date as the negatives on Renmin Park strongly outweigh the positives. If you want an introduction to the band at their finest then buy The Trinity Session and leave this album well alone.