It’s understandable to approach Gordon Downie’s solo effort, Coke Machine Glow, with a little hesitation. His band, The Tragically Hip, is rightfully a Canadian institution, fusing introspective, poetic lyrics with heartland rock. However, over recent albums, the band seems to have exhausted everything that its North-of-the-Border classic rock template has to offer. At the risk of forever being barred from entering Canada, I’ll even say that the Hip have been teetering on the awkward edge of adult contemporary softness.
Downie, in his day job as the group’s frontman, is known for a lyrical style that never saw a linear idea it couldn’t twist into a verbal pretzel. His songs teem with evocative and strange images, oftentimes working together to create a surprisingly cohesive feel (even if the subject matter isn’t always clear). So in addition to the threat that Coke Machine Glow would be as musically uninspired as recent Tragically Hip efforts, there’s the very real possibility that his first solo effort would succumb to unrestrained artsiness and poetics. On the other hand, spreading his solo wings could lead Downie to craft more sharp, dark narratives like “Locked in the Trunk of a Car”, “Pigeon Camera”, “38 Years Old”, or “New Orleans is Sinking”. Basically, like much of Downie’s persona, the very prospect of Coke Machine Glow enters the world already afflicted with a mild case of enigma.
As it turns out, the album evades and exceeds expectations on several levels. Coke Machine Glow certainly benefits from the relaxed vibe that the Tragically Hip has adopted, but the band was never as ramshackle and at ease as this. The record is extremely laid back, exuding a strong back porch or campfire vibe of friends enjoying each others’ company. Hastily recorded under the wrecking ball’s shadow (the sessions were squeezed in before the Gas Station studios were demolished), Coke Machine Glow was largely performed live, with minimal overdubs, and the immediacy shows. The rock swagger has mostly been checked at the door, and Downie engages his musicians in what sounds like a very informal and fun recording session. The sounds are warm, the parts aren’t overly complicated (the band heard the music for the first time when they sat down and then had only a few run-throughs to practice each song), and the songs stay true to their original heartfelt skeletons. Adding to that vibe is the feeling that the door was always open for folks like Julie Doiron, Travis Good (Sadies), Kevin Hearn (Barenaked Ladies), Ron Sexmith & Dave Clark (Rheostatics), and even film director Atom Egoyan to come in and participate.
The relaxed style does result in the occasional moment where the stitches show (an errant bass line, a moment where the band falters before slipping back into place, etc.), but never so much that the listener can’t slip right back into the song. However, while all 16 songs are pleasant and comfortable, not all of them rise to the level of satisfying songs on their own (“Elaborate”, “Every Irrelevance”) and feel more like mood pieces still in a gestational stage. Coke Machine Glow also feels a touch overlong, because the weaker songs are relegated to the end of the album, causing it to end on a prolonged note that’s certainly atmospheric but not very satisfying. Still, there are a clutch of fine songs here. Possibly the strongest is the sweet and affecting “Chancellor”, which mixes off-kilter vampire imagery with the strange but penetrating line “I could have made chancellor without you on my mind”. “Lofty Pines”, while not as strong, does feature backing vocals from fellow Hipster Paul Langlois (a welcome voice, as he’s typically underused on the Tragically Hip’s group recordings). “Blackflies” sports a country-tinged lounge feel, and the sharply rendered “SF Song” enjoys delicate mandolin work.
Downey’s role as a wordsmith naturally means that the lyrics receive much of his creative energy (he also released a companion volume of poetry in Canada), and his odd cadences occasionally come off as someone reading poetry over music. He keeps that largely in check, though, and the image of him hunched over, willing himself into the folds of each song is strong. Highlights, like the verbal photographs that make up “SF Song”, show Downey as deserving of the rock-poet mantle that’s been placed on him. His lyrics are still elliptical, filtered through his distinctive sensibility, but they’re just universal enough for most listeners to identify with them.
This sense of poetry is made even more explicit in the spoken word pieces that punctuate the disc. “Starpainters” opens Coke Machine Glow, bobbing atop a sweet accordion melody and setting a dreamy tone for the album. “Nothing But Heartache in Your Social Life” feels like a fragment of Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs, while “Insomniacs of the World, Goodnight” maintains a Michael Stipe-style murmur. On two of these, Atom Egoyan plays classical guitar and the icy, spare “Mystery” could fit comfortably on the soundtrack to his film The Sweet Hereafter.
Overall, Downie carves out a nice, subtly beautiful niche for himself in the context of his career leading The Tragically Hip. Spare and inviting, Coke Machine Glow shows that there are embers of life still glowing under the surface of The Hip, even if the members have to leave the confines of the band to show it. Coke Machine Glow won’t set the world on fire, but it will certainly warm the bones of anyone who sits by its side.