Michael Timmins, chief songwriter and producer/arranger of the Cowboy Junkies, has always written "relationship" songs, though not in the general sense of the word. Timmins has never been satisfied with easy answers. And in the languid, slow, cough syrup delivery of sister Margo to express them, and the band to underscore that performance, he's never had to settle. The music has always gone down gently, though the lyrics to these terse melodies have been complex, often ambivalent or riddled with seemingly paradoxical meanings. On At the End of Paths Taken, he brings his notion of relationship to its bravest and most unflinching examination yet: the family. Timmins has written a set of songs that reflect the complex, frustrating, edifying, and conflict-ridden web of relationships that constitute the family, from nuclear to extended to global. He is a parent, and a son with aging parents. He plays with his siblings in the Cowboy Junkies. He's as much of an expert on the subject as, say, Robert Coles, though in a different way. He has also extended his musical reach here, with songwriting help from bassist Alan Anton on three tunes, and the lyric inspiration of poems by Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney and novelist Joan Didion on others. There are also guest musicians who include a youth choir ("My Only Guarantee") and a string section arranged by Henry Kucharzyk, who also plays electric kalimba. Timmins has juxtaposed his gentle, turtle-paced brand of Canadian country music with some snarling guitars on "My Little Basquiat" and "Mountain." As if embodying the often embattled and contradictory nature of family itself, he also places a production focus on amplifying his acoustic guitar, which underscores each song as its center. As a result, the band, particularly Margo, follows him down the muddy rabbit hole and extend itself as well. In other words, this is not a typical -- and there is such a thing as a typical -- Cowboy Junkies recording. The difficult tension is in unpeeling the way human foibles such as greed, lust, conflict, power and anger influence and impact the family, and is reflected here with a poetic grace and gritty realism wrapped inside expressionistic musical portraits and a series of melodies and lyric lines that shift meaning as the album continues. It's an astonishing exercise, really. One in which Timmins clearly stands head and shoulders apart from most of his contemporaries who explore similar themes; Joseph Arthur comes most readily to mind. What At the End of Paths Taken means for the Cowboy Junkies: it's like a renaissance. The emotion Margo infuses these lyrics with and the tautness of the musical performances are anything but lithe or lazy. They're hungry.