If you were heartbroken and/or lonely in the winter and spring of 1990, there was no better soundtrack to your heartbroken/lonely evenings than The Caution Horses. Oh, sure, you could be happy as a lark, in a relationship with a beautiful/handsome, caring/generous/loving Other, and still enjoy it. It was a piece of vinyl, like any other; you could throw it on the turntable some Saturday afternoon, between Tone Loc and Sting, just to show you were the eclectic sort, but that would have been a waste.
To be heartbroken/lonely and put it on after dark, in the isolation of your room, was to confront every demon you called your own; to proceed, frame by frame, through the film of your recent past, trolling through B-reel footage of arguments, uncomfortable silences, tears, and outright lies, thinking to yourself, “Even in my most miserable moments then, I was happier than I am now.” The Caution Horses was capable of pulling that kind of pain out of you, laying your infection bare so you could heal.
The pathos that runs through the album is palpable. Michael Timmins, the band’s guitarist and main songwriter, weaved stories of desperately sad characters, sleepwalking through the desolation of their lives, captured in snapshots and vignettes of those lives just before or just after their grimmest point, when there’s still a glimmer of hope to have taken away. Take the young man in “Where Are You Tonight?” who plays Patsy Cline all night long, orders Wild Turkey, and picks up the song’s narrator with a line like, “My darling, you’re the one I’ll drape in sable.” The narrator sees right through him:
But his baseball cap and this bar-room rap
Tell me a different story
That this is not my prince to grant all my wishes.
Just another lonely country boy grown weary of the night.
Just another boy with a sink full of dirty dishes.
Still, she agrees to go with him, knowing full well he’s full of shit, but willing to try anything to lift her pain away. A chance glimpse of her own reflection tells her its pointless:
Then I catch us in the bar-room mirror
With his arm around my shoulder
This girl I see has grown so unfamiliar
And as she stands to leave with a stranger by her side
She can’t help but laugh at a life grown so peculiar
Margot Timmins’ voice—that subtle, whiskey/honey concoction that compels you to listen, even if she’s just whispering—so perfectly relays the scene, in such authentic a fashion, you can’t help but think the whole thing would fall apart if anyone else was singing. The exquisite “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning” is another example. We follow the protagonist through her first day after a breakup, as she gradually comes to the realization her lover is gone, and there are small freedoms she can now afford herself.
I sure do miss the smell of black coffee in the morning,
The sound of water splashing all over the bathroom,
The kiss that you would give me even though I was sleeping,
But I kind of like the feel of this extra few feet in my bed.
At one point, she forgets what’s happened and goes to make a phone call:
… Start to dial your number
Then I remember so I reach for something to smoke.
Anyways I’d rather listen to Coltrane
Than go through all that shit again.
The use of profanity is so jarring coming from that voice; it draws your attention to the frustration that led to the breakup, to the sadness and hurt that culminated and dissipated and left this slight confusion over how to simply go through the day. The writing is so detailed in that regard, and the voice delivers it with such resignation, it is at once calming and overwhelming.
If you were heartbroken/lonely, you understood that. If you were heartbroken/lonely, that voice spoke to you; it might have even spoken for you.
The desolation extends even to those who stay together. The wife in “Thirty Summers” has seen her man beaten down by life, his “days he lost to promises, his nights he purged of dreams / And he would wake in the hours before sunrise / And dread the coming of the day.” There again, the voice makes the difference, but you also notice the accompaniment—brushed drums, quiet electric guitar, harmonica, an accordion—that portend gloom even without a story in front of them. The song reveals some hope, misguided though it might be:
It’s been thirty summers that I’ve spent with him
And I expect thirty more to pass
He has blessed my life in so many ways
That I could never turn my back.
But I need just one more reminder
Of the man that he used to be
If he would just look deep into my eyes
And say it’s in you my love that I will find the key.
The list of stories goes on—”Rock and Bird,” “Mariner’s Song,” a cover of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger”—all delivered as though they were the last truths you could ever expect to hear, the last glimpses of heartbreak/loneliness you needed to hear before you closed your eyes at night, just to know you weren’t alone.
And if you made it to the end of the record before drifting off to confront your own muted dreams, you were rewarded by the spare cover of Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “You Will Be Loved Again”—a promise of warmth in the midst of a cold winter, a colder spring:
Someday you will feel a love so deep
And you’ll find someone not lost in sleep
And you will be loved again
You will be loved again
You will be loved again
You hoped you’d find that love before too long, that you wouldn’t die feeling so haunted. The Caution Horses gave voice to your late-night fears and sorrows; it was up to you to embrace the promise a new dawn presented to you.