Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Tragically Hip's balloon landing


poster by Steve Wishart
At the end of the excellent Tragically Hip documentary Long Time Running, about the band’s final tour, guitarist Rob Baker relates the following story: 


“I received a letter from a musician in Philadelphia. He followed the band for years, and he watched the last concert by himself. He bawled his eyes out. He said, ‘Rock’n’roll and bands are like hot air balloons that go up. If you’re really lucky, you get up to the jetstream and you travel really far and you see a lot. But at the end, you’re going to come crashing down. There’s always a bad end for a band.’ He said, ‘I’ve never seen a band—especially after a 30-year journey—land the balloon safely. They landed the balloon, and it was glorious. And everyone was there to cheer when it landed.’ ”


It’s the perfect ending to the film, and resonated deeply with the Hip’s fervent fan community. One such fan, Steve Wishart of Barrie, was inspired to make a beautiful poster that the band bought from him. It's included in the DVD release of Long Time Running, available on its own or packaged together with A National Celebration, the full CBC broadcast of the final show that aired on Aug. 20, 2016.


The letter-writer is not identified in the movie, but I knew right away it was Dave Bielanko from Marah, who wrote a similar Facebook post the morning of Aug. 21, 2016. The day after I saw the film on opening night, Sept. 14, 2017, I wrote to him asking if he wanted to elaborate. This is our conversation a week later, from his home in Philadelphia.


Tell me about the letter you wrote the band after the last show.

First I wrote something on Facebook, then I wrote a longer, more detailed letter to them. I could tell by their response that it went around the whole camp: the families, the wives, the managers. It was a really cool thing that helped them make sense of how emotional that [show] was, and how unusual. For a rock band to end that gracefully, perhaps it takes something that awful. It just doesn’t happen that way. It’s such an amazing thing. They’re super proud of that.

What was going through your mind while you were watching the last show?

In my opinion, the amount of trepidation that went into [putting on that show] is mind-blowing. But they pulled it off and it ended like it did. I walked around in a daze for a few days. Until I heard the news [of Downie’s diagnosis], I had fallen further away from them than I had been in a long time. Then I started to follow the story of the final tour. I watched it alone. I have this large television in my house that I never turn on—I listen to records! Hours later, I woke up in my clothes and sat up, just mesmerized by what I’d seen. I’m sure you went through the same thing. It’s an amazing thing to witness from afar.

When did you first become a fan?

I had the blue tape with ‘I’m a Werewolf’ on it when I was 14, in high school. My brother and I got it right when it came out [in 1988]. We liked their name. We thought they looked like a cool rock band.

What did you know about them?

We didn’t know anything about them! We just went to Tower Records and just bought the records we thought might be relevant. I bought the Nils album, too, you know that Canadian band?

Of course! That’s being reissued very shortly, actually.

Yeah, and I absolutely love that record. [My brother and I] had a very clique-y thing where we knew that album, and no one else did. It was our thing. I couldn’t try to turn people on to it. I didn’t know where to start. It was funny, if you disrespected it I would be angry. I saw them play Day for Night in Philly.

Was that the first time you saw them?

It was the only time. It was probably 250 Canadians there. But it was incredible. The albums were incredible to us, and they connected every time. I continued to buy the records through the years. It was a super private thing. It was not music we were going to listen to together, it was something I do alone. The Tragically Hip became a very lonely band to me.

Anyone in your peer group know the band?

My brother and I shared that. I made a couple of friends in New York City that way, too, but they were mostly Canadians. It was funny that we were friends; it could be so invisible in the United States. God knows how many times record companies would try to launch them here.

Four different ones, actually.

Yeah, right? I’m sure [the record companies had] the worst ideas, like putting them on tour with Marcy Playground or whatever. There was no other way for the band to infiltrate. The beautiful thing was that, instead, they said: ‘Fuck it! Why would we try and do that anyway?’ They had integrity.

Canadians are obsessed with the band’s status in the U.S.—even our prime minister talked about that on the night of the last show, which tells you how deep the insecurity runs. In the early ’90s we’d hear about how they’d be playing arenas here but bowling alleys down south, although eventually they were playing at least 1,000-seat venues all over the States.

They were playing to the right people, and not just curious people that were being marketed to. They were playing to people who needed to be in that room.

It begs the larger question: what is a rock’n’roll band, really? It’s such a primal thing that you do with your buddies in school, and if you don’t kibosh it at some point, it can grow into something that’s really hard to stomach trying to sell it to someone. I know they must have struggled with that, but they came out ahead of almost everything that was running parallel to them. The fact that they ended as the five they began is such an amazing thing. And there weren’t other singers or horns or anything, it was just: this is what it is. All the internal tension and turmoil and events around the illness and families—there’s so much to it.




Why do you think your letter resonated so much with the band?

I was able to have this lovely exchange with Rob. I think he saw a perspective that he was probably wondering if it even existed out there. [My brother and I] were very much along for the entire ride, but our vantage point was just so strange, being lost in America and in our own upheaval of lives; we couldn’t pay that much attention. We heard rumours that this band was playing to 30,000 people. That makes no sense to me. Because in my book bag, the Hip’s tapes were there right beside the Dead Milkmen and Jimmy Reed and dark-horse things I’ve always been drawn to. They’re very much a dark-horse band who pulled themselves into the light of an entire country.

They really were ubiquitous on the radio here, and resonated for a lot of people in ways that most chart-topping rock bands don’t. It’s hard to describe to non-Canadians.

I know there’s a part of a lot of Canadians who took it for granted; it was casual, the acceptance of the band. Way too casual for me; I’d be infuriated if people took that band for granted! But it all became apparent in the end, when you realize how profound that group of shows was, how hard it was for all of them and how difficult it must have been for Gord to pull it off.

What do you think compared to it in the mainstream in the U.S. at the time you first heard them in 1988?

It was not incredibly dissimilar to a lot of ’80s Midwest American bands, definitely R.E.M. in its first wave. They were not turning their back on traditional American folk music. They weren’t fighting any country music influence. These were the things we were very intrigued by. The general garage band-ness of it meant it was obviously a rock band, but they didn’t seem to be playing a card; they seemed to be wide open. Those are the people who become dangerous, because they’re not being exclusive, it’s not an act they’re playing. You could, on a good day, genuinely channel something. Those things were apparent right in the beginning. Then they went leaps and bounds pretty quickly, into the full, much more muscular fuckin’ rock’n’roll band, which was super cool. Then it wasn’t until Road Apples where you thought, ‘Oh right, that’s it, they’ve arrived.’

At that point most bands begin to decline, because it’s a natural trajectory to plateau and try and maintain that. But they continued to push themselves. There were points where records came out, like Fully Completely, where we had to look at each other and say: are we still here? But time would reveal those records that they were very much still there, pushing further, like any artist must, in order to keep themselves engaged. It gives people something to genuinely consider, it’s not just something we’re selling, something we’re marketing and trying to stay in a safe zone in the middle.



That time you saw them around Day for Night, was that when they were in between American record companies and were selling the album off the side of the stage?

I don’t think so. There was definitely an operation, with a crew. In the back office at the end of the night, I’m sure the promoter didn’t look at it as a success, but it was a super successful gig: the people who were there were very much there. I’m sure in the days previous to that show they played NYC and that was probably a wicked show. Their appeal seemed to centre around where there were large communities of hockey fans. Which was really cool to us, it was beyond intriguing. We didn’t grow up with that. The northernness of the band was, to us, exotic.

They’ve said they were reluctant to do Long Time Running; this is a band that doesn’t like to talk about themselves on camera.

It’s self-defence, that’s all. People could look at it as being somehow pretentious, but it’s not at all. After a while, so much misinformed stuff is seen and projected and it hurts your feelings a little bit. You learn to appreciate the great stuff that comes out, but for the most part count yourself out. I totally see that. They asked me if they could use the letter in the DVD extras. I gave them my blessing.

Ed note: Marah spent part of 2016 reckoning with their own legacy, with the re-release of their 2008 album Angels of Destruction, as detailed in this Rolling Stone article

Monday, November 13, 2017

EMA - Exile in the Outer Ring

EMA – Exile in the Outer Ring 
(City Slang)

Apparently the incredibly overrated War on Drugs makes "heartland synth rock," which we're told comes from a lineage including '80s records by Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. But what about the actual weirdoes living in the faceless small cities of rural North America, far away from commercial centres and not remotely as successful? Where the dudes at the local music shop wonder what you're doing with all that wacky synth gear? Where being a woman with a weird haircut and who plays guitar stands out at the local open mic night next to country-pop singers and nu-metal bands? Where "getting high is a family tradition" and your high school peers end up joining the Aryan Nation?


Erika M. Anderson grew up in South Dakota, fled to San Francisco to start a noise band, then moved to Portland to carve out her new musical persona. There, she started making music that spoke to the isolation, social and otherwise, that emanates from basement-apartment dwellers in hollowed-out towns where even the franchise stores have shuttered. Towns where, when options are limited, it's tempting to lash out at those with even less power than yourself.

EMA owes musical debts to Nine Inch Nails and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as well as industrial, goth and new wave of the '80s and '90s. She writes songs with strong pop melodies, but everything that surrounds them is often terrifying: there are no easy outs here. The appeal of this, her third solo album (following 2014's excellent The Future Void), is in the full package: her captivating vocals, her lyrical portraits, her melodies, and her entire approach to production. The latter shows her to be, unlike so many other artists for whom synths are window dressing, to be a sound sculptor, not some random patch-finder.

"The outer ring" refers to the area between the suburbs and rural areas, the last affordable place to live for city workers who have been gentrified out of their old neighbourhoods. It's a geography abandoned and rarely addressed by anything in pop culture, a place where EMA's disembodied electronic environments and conventional songwriting chops clash perfectly.

Exile in the Outer Ring is also very much a zeitgeist record, speaking to the disembodied, the dislocated, and life in the margins in modern North America. It's one of the most powerful records of 2017, and—having been released in August—was so even before greater resonance could be applied to the chorus, "Tell me stories of famous men / I can't see myself in them."

EMA is currently on tour with The Blow. They play Montreal tomorrow, Nov. 14, at Le Belmont; Nov. 15 at the Garrison in Toronto and Nov. 17—both dates with Petra Glynt—and at the UFO Factory in Detroit with Mother Cyborg.  

Stream: "I Wanna Destroy," "Down and Out," "33, Nihilistic and Female"



Thursday, October 26, 2017

Gord Downie - Introduce Yerself


Gord Downie – Introduce Yerself (Arts and Crafts)


Most people don’t get a chance to say goodbye. Despite the tragedy of his brain cancer, the late Gord Downie had the luxury of having one of the longest goodbyes in music history: first in the triumphant final Tragically Hip tour in the summer of 2016, and now in the flurry of music he recorded in the last two years of his life.


Details of those other final projects have yet to be officially announced, but it’s hard to imagine any will act as a better epitaph than Introduce Yerself, recorded in two four-day stints a year apart: one in January 2016, shortly after Downie had a craniotomy, and another in February 2017. It’s being released 10 days after his death.


This was what Downie wanted to make sure he left behind more than anything else: 23 songs written as love letters to people near and dear to him. To his parents, to his siblings, to his children, to the women he loved, to his old friends, to his new friends in James Bay, and of course to his beloved bandmates. There’s even one dedicated to Lake Ontario.


Downie was never a writer to mine his diaries for lyrics. When he did write deeply personal songs, like “Fiddler’s Green” or “Toronto #4,” they were open-ended enough that listeners could interpret them a variety of different ways. It wasn’t until 2006 that Downie discovered that love makes the world go around—20 years into his career as a songwriter, it was only then that he started writing silly love songs. “I was avoiding it for all those years probably for some high falutin reason,” he told George Stromboulopoulos that year. “I probably didn’t trust myself to not lapse into some kind of sappy sentimentality. Sentimentality is really, really dangerous in my line of work. Taking the crack at it is the most important thing.”


Introduce Yerself is incredibly personal and full of intimate details—“Bedtime” documents the minutiae of putting an infant to rest—and yet each song is a secret code to the recipient. Only if you are in Downie’s inner circle or have mutual friends could you begin to guess for whom each of these songs are written—and even then it might be a mystery. There are many songs about women: his mother? His sisters? His daughters? The mother of his four children? Ex-lovers? New lovers? Who the heck is “Nancy”? Only on the song titled “My First Girlfriend,” about a teenage romance with someone six years older (!) can we be sure. (Or not: apparently it's actually about idolizing his eldest sister.) 



The title track is about that old trick to cover for memory lapse in social occasions: when you can’t remember someone’s name, get an adjacent friend to introduce themselves, prompting the mystery person to say their name. This entire album is Downie convening the most important people in his life and introducing them to each other—but without ever saying their names.


There are a few obvious recipients of these letters, namely the ones about his children, like “Bedtime.” “Spoon” is about bonding with his son over the Texan band of the same name, of going to a show together when the boy was too young to stay up late. “Love Over Money” is clearly about the Tragically Hip, about the band of brothers who were not always the happy family they projected to the world, but who navigated a rough road and triumphed in the end—they even “deafened the husband of the Queen of England,” a reference to a command performance where Prince Philip complained about the volume. It’s an obvious point of pride for Downie.  


An album like this is critic-proof, of course: what, are you going to judge a dying man’s correspondence with loved ones? This intimate exchange wouldn’t necessarily be recommended to anyone who isn’t already a massive fan—although, as we found out in the outpouring of love last year, there are few Canadian music fans of a certain generation who don’t have at least a soft spot for Downie.


It is a long record; were it not for the gravity of the situation and the speed with which it was made, it could certainly stand to lose some of the less developed ideas. (Obviously that was not an option.) It shares some commonalities with Stephen Merritt’s self-explanatory 50 Song Memoir from earlier this year, or Greg Keelor’s elegies for his late father, Seven Songs for Jim. It’s like Songs for Drella in reverse: that album by Lou Reed and John Cale was written about Andy Warhol after his death. This is the dying artist writing with affection about the community that has always surrounded him.


Musically, it’s a natural sibling to Secret Path: producer Kevin Drew co-wrote most of these songs, based on his piano sketches and with melodies by Downie. Drew’s producing partner Dave Hamelin is also on board, as is Downie’s longtime engineer Nyles Spencer and his best friend, Dave “Billy Ray” Koster, on some drum tracks. There is nothing rock’n’roll or folkie about this: this is reverb-drenched, late-night cabaret, with Peter Hook bass lines and more than a few Brian Eno atmospherics. More plaintive tempos dominate, but there are also several songs that could double as Broken Social Scene rockers, if there were layers of electric guitars here—which there are decidedly not. Even more so than Coke Machine Glow or Secret Path, this music is naked and vulnerable. Which is exactly what it’s supposed to be.


That last Tragically Hip tour was simultaneously an act of enormous generosity to his fan base, and yet it was still intensely private: we knew very little about what his daily struggle was like. This album is much the same: it’s a gift to those close to him, and by extension to his fans, but there is still so much about Downie that will always be unknowable.



Stream: “Introduce Yerself,” “Spoon,” “Snowflake”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Gordon Edgar Downie R.I.P.

Gordon Edgar Downie now walks among the stars. He died last night surrounded by his family. For them, and for his bandmates, for his friends, for his professional associates, and for the hundreds of people whose lives he touched personally, the loss of his generous spirit and physical presence is immeasurable.


For the millions who had a relationship with only his work, his words and his music are still with us, and always will be. The music Gord Downie made with his brothers in the Tragically Hip is part of our country’s history. Their impact will be felt many generations into the future. But Gord Downie was always situated in what he called “the never-ending present.” He felt the most important work you’ll ever do is the work being done right now. That applied to the last two years of his life in particular.


Until their last decade, the Tragically Hip released new music every two years, like clockwork. They never took an extended break from the road--not even when threatened by terminal tragedy. Downie released five solo albums in between, and toured behind them. (More are forthcoming.) Every show was different. Every show would surrender to the spontaneity of the moment. Nothing is more vital than the here and now. With your family. With your friends. With your peers. With total strangers, in a communal celebration. Or all alone, listening to music that makes you feel the same way today as it did in in 1987; in 1997; in 2007.


“I want you to enchant my days
Onward, daily, forward, away”


In 2017, Gord Downie is now gone. If we are to honour that legacy, we should embrace that never-ending present, to leave nothing on the table, to “use it up,” to enable beauty, to build the Canada of the next 150 years. “All songs are one song, and that song is: don’t forget.”

Friday, September 15, 2017

Pre-Polaris 2017, Day Five: Leif Vollebekk, Weaves



The 12th Polaris Music Prize gala is being held on Sept. 18, at the Carlu in Toronto, where 11 jurors locked in a room will decide which one of 10 shortlisted artists will get $50,000. All other nominees receive $3,000.


Every day this week I’ve been looking at two of the shortlisted albums, assess their chances, and celebrate two albums that didn’t make the shortlist—or, in some cases, even the long list.


On day one I discussed A Tribe Called Red, BadBadNotGood, and should've beens Phillipe B and Japandroids. Day two was Leonard Cohen, Gord Downie, and should’ve beens by Loscil and Tami Neilson. Day three was Feist and Lisa LeBlanc, with should’ve beens by Le Couleur and Jessie Reyez. Day four was Lido Pimienta, Tanya Tagaq, with should’ve beens by Sagot and Sam Patch.


Finally:


Leif Vollebekk – Twin Solitude (Secret City)

The album: (reviewed Sept. 14, 2017)


I put off writing about this record until now, because I could never stay awake listening to it. And I'm the guy who voted for Loscil.

How did this unassuming folk record sneak in beside the kings and queens of Canada’s critically acclaimed creative community? Excellent question. Vollebekk’s songs are sparse, melodically similar, and sound like a guy making up words as he sits in the passenger seat driving through North America. (Song titles: “Vancouver Time,” “Big Sky Country,” “Michigan,” “Telluride.”) It sounds effortless—and not in a good way. There is nothing here to distinguish him from hundreds of sad-sack songwriters. Why anyone would pick this out of a pile that includes Amelia Curran, Rose Cousins, Jordan Klaasen, Jesse McCormack, or--well, sweet Jesus, this is Canada we’re talking about here: go to any random folk festival, throw a hackysack into the crowd, and you’re bound to hit one of dozens of songwriters superior to Vollebekk. Is this some kind of Ray Lamontagne thing? Maybe, coz I don’t get that guy either. At all.
 


Discussing each track here with CBC Music, Vollebekk said of one, “I think I was hungover when I wrote this song. I'd been dragged to a club in Montreal. The next morning I was bleary-eyed and started playing these chords and singing whatever came and this song kind of came out. It seems to be about nothing specific but it kind of connects what it needs to, where it needs to.” All of Twin Solitude seems like it was composed in a similar fashion.
 

Vollebekk’s main talent is as a producer: he knows how to situate his songs in a groove and find sympathetic players to play as little as possible, with only the simplest string orchestrations and subtle touches on piano and pedal steel. The problem is that this skeletal approach works best for songs that require no distraction. These songs, on the other hand, require as much distraction as necessary. Personally, I find it distracting that he hired Michael Feuerstack to play pedal steel on one track--because that just reminds me that I’d much rather be listening to a Michael Feuerstack record.


The chances: I’d say non-existent. The man obviously has his fans, but I cannot envision anyone not already predisposed to sad sacks suddenly falling in love with this record.


Weaves - s/t (Buzz)

The album: This album is a beautifully hot mess. Toronto’s Weaves is a guitar-bass-drums band who turn the formula inside out in the way precious few bands have done since the no-wave era of the early ’80s—the most popular exception being Deerhoof (to these ears, the most exciting rock band of the 2000s). None of these songs go where you think they will, and the energy is driven by the thrilling presence of singer Jasmyn Burke. While there’s lots to chew on here, few songs coalesce as well as opening track “Tick.” Elsewhere, you’re listening to an exciting, if uneven, debut album by a fiercely talented young band. But as the lead single from the upcoming follow-up reveals, this band is about to get even better.



The chances: Slim. For all their obtuseness, Weaves are a lot of fun--something that, Kaytranada notwithstanding, Polaris rarely rewards. But I’m guessing they’ll make it far in the jury-room elimination rounds--and that they may very well be back on the shortlist next year.

The could’ve beens, should’ve beens:


Timber Timbre – Sincerely, Future Pollution (Arts and Crafts)

The album: (reviewed April 6, 2017)


Here’s something I never in a million years thought I’d witness: a six-year-old child doing a funky dance to a Timber Timbre song. Yet that’s what happened in my house one of the first times I played “Grifting,” from the group’s sixth album. Normally purveyors of bleak, backwoods blues with twangy guitars and ’70s synths, Timber Timbre pulled out a clavinet to make an unusually groovy beat for the track in question, which isn’t as fish-out-of-water as a longtime fan might suspect.
 


Sexy, slinky grooves have slowly been permeating Timber Timbre’s music as the band’s sound became more expansive, most notably on 2014’s Hot Dreams. Other than “Grifting,” though, there are no surprises here, other than the fact that this group manages to milk endless possibilities out of a predictable format, one in which bandleader Taylor Kirk’s undead-Elvis voice is drenched in reverb singing lyrics like, “Now I come before you moving through this tomb of vapour-y perfume and fog-filled rooms,” one in which Simon Trottier and Mathieu Charbonneau extract all kinds of unsettling sounds from their instruments, one in which Tindersticks meet Tangerine Dream and groove to dub reggae and early Peter Gabriel records.

It would be lazy to dismiss a band this experimental as formulaic. Timber Timbre have a formula, to be sure, but one that keeps evolving and getting more freaky as they go: witness the Vocoders and completely wiggy, Fripp-esque guitar solo in “Moment.” And yet they’re simultaneously sweeter and more accessible: the album closes with “Floating Cathedral,” one of the loveliest songs in their catalog—surprising us right until the end.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: This was shocking to me, seeing how their last two records shortlisted. Then again, it’s my own damn fault: I didn’t vote for it, because, as always, there were a lot of great records to consider and for whatever reason at the time I’d decided I couldn’t squeeze this on to my list of five. Even if I think this band keeps getting better. If even a fan like myself takes this band for granted, and if others might not see the evolution, then it can be easy for them to slip through the cracks. But if you’ve ever been drawn to this band, don’t let the Polaris snub allow you to forget about this. And go see them this November: it sounds even better live.


The Tragically Hip – Man Machine Poem (Universal)

The album: (reviewed June 16, 2016)
“Just give me the news,” goes the opening line of the lead single from The Tragically Hip’s final album. We’ve all heard the horrible news by now. The news is that singer Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer. The news is that this is the final Tragically Hip album. The news is that this summer’s tour will likely be the last. Nobody wanted that news.
 

That news, however, came to the band shortly after this album was written and recorded in the fall of 2015. Man Machine Poem, produced by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and the Stills’ Dave Hamelin, is not something Downie or the band knew would be a final statement, and should not be treated as such. Most important, long-dormant Hip fans who now have a sudden urge to see their teenage heroes one last time need to realize—dear God, if they haven’t by now—that this is not the same band who made “New Orleans is Sinking.” News flash: The Hip has not been that band for a very, very long time. If your impression of these Canadian heroes ossified in the early 1990s, then by all means cling to those first three albums during your mourning period. This is a completely different band.

The Hip’s discography of the last 20 years is full of hits and plenty of misses, as surely even the most diehard fan will tell you. Drew and Hamelin are not slaves to history: they turn the band loose, encouraging the Hip to dive into dream states, to paint with colours that more closely match Downie’s lyrical abstractions.  


“Nothing works, and nothing worse / I’ve tried nothing, and I’m out of ideas,” sings Downie on “Great Soul,” which bears more than a passing resemblance to 1994’s “Grace, Too.” But really, he’s just baiting us, because this is band that suddenly seems bursting with new ideas—nothing remotely revolutionary in the world of rock music, of course, but the culmination of the direction they’ve been headed since 1994’s Day For Night. Back then, they consciously pulled the plug on stadium rock and started taking lessons from such disparate teachers as Daniel Lanois and Eric’s Trip. Likewise, here the Hip dwell in dark sonic corners, rarely rocking out, delving into texture and nuance. This is the band they’ve been trying to be; Drew and Hamelin got them there.

The album opens with a tape-manipulated, pitch-shifting vocal; the rest of the incredibly sparse song sounds like nothing else the band has ever recorded. On the gorgeous and sparse “In Sarnia,” Downie sounds anguished, almost inconsolable, his lyrics collapsing out of the meter, often unintelligible; it sounds like a man giving everything he has in a jittery, nervous performance at odds with the languid groove. It’s a harrowing and gutsy performance no matter the context, especially now.


When the band does play it relatively straight, like on first single “In a World Possessed by the Human Mind,” they sound triumphant, not timid, like they’re ready to go another 20 years. Even a mid-tempo song called “Tired as Fuck”—which, when coming from a rock band in their 50s, practically invites mockery—has a strut and swagger to it, while Downie sings, “I want to stop so much I almost don’t want to stop.”
 

Kevin Drew says this album is about “memory, transformation and truth.” That’s all any of us could ask for in a document that turned out to be a final will and testament. “I want you to enchant my days, honour it daily,” sings Downie. That’s worked both ways now, for 27 years, for 13 albums, for the infinite times this band’s work has soundtracked and illuminated our lives.


Later thoughts: I’m writing a book about it. You’ll have to wait. In the meantime, here’s a brief excerpt that gives you a peak at what I’m up to.


Why it didn’t make it: It was surprising enough that it made the long list, because precious few artists capture Polaris attention this deep into their career. There is no question that the news of 2016 drew more attention to a new Tragically Hip record than would otherwise exist, but that it also happened to be one of the better Tragically Hip records was a pleasant coincidence. As for why that momentum didn’t catapult this record onto the shortlist, the obvious reason is that it was eclipsed by Downie’s solo record, which is on many levels, more in tune with the Polaris wavelength. Either way, I know that Polaris founder Steve Jordan--who, in his earlier life, happened to have been the first DJ to play the Tragically Hip on top 40 radio, on Kingston’s CKLC back in 1987--couldn’t be happier that Man Machine Poem landed on the long list.


Side note: Go see Long Time Running, the new Tragically Hip documentary by Jennifer Baichwal and Nick dePencier, in theatres if you can this weekend; it’s playing only until Monday. It’s the film the band deserves and has never had until now. It’s beautifully shot (naturally) and sounds great at full volume, so don’t wait until it airs on CTV in November if you don’t have to. Most important, it crams a lot of narrative and many (of my favourite) songs into a concise 90-minute film, in ways I doubted was possible. And don’t worry: like the tour itself, it’s not remotely maudlin or tear-jerky. It’s a celebration.