Gord Downie will forever be associated with Canada’s most successful band, the Tragically Hip. That is not up for debate or discussion. After forging into his debut solo album Coke Machine Glow, Downie returned to “The Hip” for the group’s latest release In Violet Light and toured across the country to sold-out arenas, something few Canadian acts can do consistently. But Downie is beginning to find another outlet for his vivid, sometimes quirky poetic pictures. The result is his sophomore album, a record that ranges from some sublime spoken word pieces to straightforward rock songs.
Downie starts off with a minimal acoustic ditty entitled “Into the Night”. Bringing to mind Hip hits like “Ahead by a Century” or “Flamenco”, the tune’s downbeat guitar creates a tension that never leaves. “Here’s where I shook you by the shoulders / Shoved you up against a truck—‘what’s up’ / It was a picture of someone getting old / And of someone growing up”, Downie sings just above a whisper. The track could be construed for the soundtrack to Twin Peaks VI or something to that effect. “Figment” is its polar opposite, a loud garage rock sound that evokes instant images of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Perhaps this is brought to light more by the lyric, “All of my heroes are women / And all of ‘em are cinnamon”, Downie sings, bringing to mind “Cinnamon Girl”. The wall of sound behind only adds to the luster, especially since this was done live off the floor.
Another aspect that makes Downie one of the better writers around is his ability to take different influences from all works of art, including literature. “Christmastime in Toronto” is a prime example of this as he quotes from Chekov: “Always the wind and the persistent snow / Gets in your eyes and your mouth and every fold of your coat”. Musically, it’s fairly tame and radio-friendly, a bouncy rock song that fits the format despite the false ending. “Willow Logic” is more artistic as Downie sings in parts as the narrator alternates, speaking other portions. While not entirely a horrid song, the simplicity and structure does seem to detract from the lyrics. The fade out is much longer than needed, making for a rather boring music-and-nature-sounding minute. “Pascal’s Submarine” has a certain happy pop feeling along the lines of the Hidden Cameras or Polyphonic Spree. Featuring a number of backing harmonies, harmonicas and horns, the group effect is its best asset.
“11th Fret” features Dave Clark (from the Dinner Is Ruined), Julie Doiron (formerly of Eric’s Trip) and Josh Finlayson (of Skydiggers). It’s one of the bolder Hip-like tracks on the record. In the press kit, Downie refers to it as a “George (Jones) and Tammy (Wynette) and Bowie tune.” The Bowie can be seen quite clearly in his vocals and the ‘70s glam underbelly of the song. It’s also one of the tracks that is finely edited. A series of noises makes the Lou Reed-like spoken “Who by Rote” decent but not classic. Using a zydeco washboard and snow shoveling for effects, the song drags with a sagging instrumental conclusion. Moving seamlessly into “Steeplechase”, the underlying guitar works wonders here, making it perhaps the highest of several musical highs. A George Martin circa “A Day in the Life” cacophony of sound rears its head for the homestretch as Doiron can be heard in the distance. The play-by-play hockey commentary only heightens that effect. The line “It’s a sound coming down / Like a chuckwagon when it strays / A little too far from the Stampede Days” may not be understood by few outside Canada, but it’s a lyric gem.
“More Me Less You” is heartfelt, a minimal duet between Downie and Doiron that has a slightly country tinge working behind it. Perhaps the song which could be skipped over is “We’re Hardcore”, which falls in a vein of Violent Femmes, a quirky rock quality that runs under two minutes. The last two tracks are the same song. “Pillform #2” has a light fluffy groove that has Downie slightly laughing over the line “Through these last 10,000 years as books have taught us”. “Pillform #1” is grittier and was originally done to satisfy a request by Daniel Richler (son of Modercai Richler) in his attempt to endorse his TV Book Channel. A quirky conclusion to an album that is far more well-rounded than his previous effort.