On May 24, 2016, the world learned very sad news. The Tragically Hip announced that their lead singer and main composer Gordon Downie was hit by incurable brain cancer. The first reflex we saw everywhere on the Net were messages of hope, of love, of courage. Fans wishing him a miracle.

Rock journalists underlining the great piece of work Downie and his band have put together for the last 30 years, defining Canadian rock and modern poetry. The Tragically Hip is the band that made Canadian rock great again. After decades of awful 80’s years where Haywire, Honeymoon Suite and Glass Tiger ruled, these five guys from Kingston, Ontario, blew everybody’s minds with an awesome album, “Up To Here” in 1989. A great guitar rock album where Rob Baker’s licks were solidly supported by a solid rhythm section that played on its toes on songs like Blow at High Dough, New Orleans Is Sinking, Boots or Hearts, and 38 Years Old that became major hits. Finally a Canadian band could compare itself to great American bands of the times like The Black Crowes or REM.

The band continued its path with a bunch of very solid albums on which their lead singer emerged as a great songwriter. Songs like Ahead By A Century, Bobcaygeon, Locked in the Trunk of a Car, At the Hundredth Meridian and Nautical Disaster have become classics of the modern rock era.

Here are a few of these great songs.

 

A few days after this sad announcement, The Tragically Hip announced they would do one last tour, as this is what Downie wished more than anything. Tickets flew in minutes. And on June 17, 2016, the band released “Man Machine Poem”, their 13th album. It is hard to review an album from somebody who might be on the edge of losing his life. I remember having to listen to David Bowie’s “Blackstar” after his death last January and being puzzled by this sad situation that was influencing my judgement. Same thing here. Am I listening to In Sarnia or What Blue differently knowing what we know today? Of course I am.

And to be honest, I might have not even listened to this album at all, as I had lost contact with the band since the early 2000’s. I have not listened to any of the albums from “In Violet Light” (2002) to “Now for Plan A” (2012) at all, for no good and no particular reason. Just the fact that there is so much music to listen to nowadays that we sometimes miss albums from bands we like. That is the reality of music critics that cover a broad spectrum of genres. But they were great ones in there that I will eventually grab and dig into: nine of their thirteen studio albums have reached #1 on the Canadian charts.

tragically hip band live

Los Angeles, CA – The Wiltern – October 5, 2015 (Photography by Aven Hoffarth)

One thing to specify is that these songs were written and recorded before Downie’s cancer was diagnosed. Unlike Bowie, it wasn’t planned as “the last opus” (let’s hope it isn’t). Any reference to mortality would be coincidental, or subconsciously brought into the lyrics.

My first reaction after listening closely to these ten new Tragically Hip songs is that there are maybe less spectacular guitars than in their early works. Baker and second guitarist Paul Langlois are more low-profile, although still very present. There are also a bit more psychedelic effects and moods here and there. The opening song, Man, and the intro of Great Soul feel like a blend of REM and Alice in Chains, with a pinch of flying mood à la Radiohead, which is something that surprised me on a Hip album. Voice effects and airy acoustic guitar on Ocean Next are very different from the regular Hip sound, or at least the one I remember them by, but it works.

gordon downie CrAvenHoffarth 2015

Houston, TX – House of Blues – October 10, 2015 (Photography by Aven Hoffarth)

One of the key songs, Tired as Fuck, seems to reference sickness but that is only interpretation. Musically speaking, we find this great rock band able to deliver subtle ambiance that underlines the 52 year-old singer’s voice. Drummer Johnny Fay shows he can step up, away from the regular 4/4 rock beats we usually expect from your average band. It just shows how The Tragically Hip isn’t an average band. After playing together for 32 years, with no personnel changes ever, they have developed a sound, a wide variety of styles that still sounds like them, but doesn’t always sound the same. They defined their territory and expanded it. Hot Mic is another great example of a Hip song not sounding like the others but still true to their band feel.

 

Bands that work hard on their art and stick together through the years develop their craft in a way that they can explore styles without any fear. They broaden their musical palette at every step. Think of Radiohead. REM. U2. They each have built their own artistic freedom within the band, within each individual’s skills and ideas. On Machine, it’s bass player Gord Sinclair who sets the mood before a hyper catchy refrain suddenly appears out of nowhere to surprise the listener the best way: by creating a wonderful wow effect that shows their savoir-faire. A great way to close the album.

It is sad news to have learn that Gordon Downie is probably living his last months or years. We can only hope that he will be in peace with himself, that he will be surrounded by his loved ones. He will probably get loads of positive vibes as he tours the country one last time with The Tragically Hip. Let’s wish him the best of courage in the tougher days ahead.

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THE TRAGICALLY HIP
Man Machine Poem
(Universal, 2016)

-Genre: modern rock
-In the same vibes as Afghan Whigs, dEUS, Alice in Chains

Listen and buy the album on the band’s BandCamp page
Follow the band via their Facebook page
Listen to videos on the band’s YouTube channel

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About The Author

Nicolas Pelletier
Fondateur et rédacteur en chef
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Mélomane invétéré et rédacteur agréé, Nicolas pratique la critique en mode olympique: il parle de tout, tout le temps, depuis 1991. Il a publié 4 500 critiques de disques et concerts dont 1100 chez emoragei magazine et 600 sur enMusique.ca, dont il a également été le rédacteur en chef de 2009 à 2014. Nicolas a publié "Les perles rares et les grands crus de la musique" en janvier 2013, un ouvrage de 1250 pages en deux tomes.