New Album From Cowboy Junkies Rich With Exotic Tales : All Songs Considered Frontman Michael Timmins tells how one of the standout tracks from the band's latest album came to be.  Timmins lived briefly in China and spent his time making recordings of exotic sounds. Those tapes are the foundation for the new record.
NPR logo New Album From Cowboy Junkies Rich With Exotic Tales

New Album From Cowboy Junkies Rich With Exotic Tales

album cover
Cover art for 'Renmin Park'

The latest edition of All Songs Considered features a super cool new song from Cowboy Junkies with the mysterious title "Sir Francis Bacon At The Net."  We asked frontman Michael Timmins if he could help us understand what the track is about.  The story he told was more ivolved (and interesting) than anything we could sum up in a sentence or two, so we decided to share the whole thing with you.

"Sir Francis Bacon At The Net" appears on the new Cowboy Junkies album Renmin Park, an inspired collection of songs built on ambient recordings and found sounds Timmins made while living with his family in China.

"The roots of this song are quite varied and complicated," says Timmins. "It started as a musical structure based around the field recording that you hear, which is of two men playing badminton in Renmin Park. Every Tuesday and Thursday I would go to the park at 7am to play badminton with a group of people, a couple of them were People’s Liberation Army old guards. I was befriended by one of them and through him I was introduced to a few other men of his generation and over the weeks of getting together, and then going to breakfast after our game, they would slowly unveil their stories. All of them had been members of the PLA (airforce, intelligence, foot soldiers); all of them had harrowing stories of their lives during the Cultural Revolution (after they had given their youth to their country, fighting for an ideal put forth by Mao). All of them had been imprisoned; one of them (the man who befriended me) was in a labour camp for 16 years. And yet when I tried to broach the subject of Mao and his legacy, I never heard one discouraging word and more often than not there was praise. Part of this was an old world wariness about speaking out on a subject as politically volatile as Mao, but I also began to realize that Mao’s legacy is rooted in so much contradiction and personal history.

"So the lyrics started off as an attempt at touching on that contradiction (So calculating it parses a man / between the hand that held the dream / and the sword being held by the hand. / Their golden frames hang gleaming. / Tangled bones of their crimes bleaching. / Their golden frames hang gleaming. / Bleaching bones of their crimes tangling.) From there the song grew…it touches on the inevitability of the next “Mao” rising up (There he stands a mere mist of a thing / Waiting his turn to challenge the King)…and the proclivity to violence in that country’s history:  man-made to nature’s violence (Merciless nature, both human and mother, walk this land each through the arm of the other) and then it ends with a comment on how the outcome of these cataclysmic violent upheavals (the man-made ones) are completely and totally unpredictable. The first line is based on an ancient Chinese saying about the uncertainty of predicting the future and the second half is the same theme but based on a Sir Francis Bacon quote (As the map is unrolled the dagger comes out / and that which was certain will now end in doubt.)

"The title of the song brings in to play the field recording of the badminton game and the underlying theme of the song which is based around the Bacon quote about all things beginning in certainty inevitably end in doubt. By looking at China’s past and talking to those who have lived through the turbulence of the past 80 years, it seemed to me like this quote was a fitting way to predict its future."