So remind me again why the Tragically Hip isn’t huge in the U.S.? Why does one of Canada’s biggest rock bands recede into anonymity when it crosses the border? The last time (quite possibly the only time) I remember the Hip invading the indifferent consciousness of its neighbor was almost a decade ago, introduced by fellow Canadian (and faux bluesman) Dan Akyroyd on Saturday Night Live. Trends come and go, but the Hip has been together for 20 years now (all five original members remain) and they still can’t catch some stateside props. Canada didn’t hide its bands behind its back and say, “OK, America, guess which one you want!” No, Canada put Alanis Morissette, Barenaked Ladies, and the Tragically Hip out on the table, and you, America, chose the foul-mouthed pretty one and the nerdy sentimentalists that caused you to shoot milk out your nose with “chickity China, the Chinese chicken”. Looks like I’ve answered my own question. Never mind.
The amazing thing about a band like the Tragically Hip is how, two decades into its career, it can remain as inspired and vitriolic as any band half its age. In Between Evolution explosively proves such a statement, as it very well could be the strongest album the band has released. The Hip has never sounded tighter as a collective unit than they do on In Between Evolution; the songs are injected with a newfound sense of intense focus, as if the band’s very career depended on it. The album’s fringes smolder from the heat of its passionate core. It’s raw and human, so yes it is flawed, but you have to respect the band for being so honest and direct.
I must admit, I write all of this while equally surprised and elated, because I have not always climbed to the rooftops to sing the praises of every Tragically Hip release. Its last album of comparable strength was Phantom Power (1998); In Violet Light (2002) had terrific songs, but was thwarted by inexplicably poor production. For In Between Evolution, the band hired the able ears of rock producer Adam Kasper (Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age) who wisely captures the band shooting off sparks, live in the studio, with little interruption.
The Tragically Hip is a perfect cocktail of brawn and brains: the band’s electrically charged chemistry appeals to one’s most primal rock and roll instincts, and vocalist Gord Downie’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics are atypically clever. Downie has a frantic urgency in his voice that comes trembling from his lungs, equally fearless and fearsome. Some folks have lazily dubbed the Hip as “Canada’s R.E.M.”, but Michael Stipe, despite all his bodily convulsions and riffs on Styrofoam, doesn’t viscerally attack like Downie. (Now would be the appropriate time to comment on the inimitable aspect of Downie’s voice, but that guy from Interpol has to stop his impersonation before I can make such a statement with confidence.)
In Between Evolution is an album full of stadium-sized anthems, rife with purity and potency. While the songs may loom large like foreboding shadows, a closer inspection reveals ruminations on a tangible, personal level. Some Ron Wood-inspired slide guitar pushes “Vaccination Scar” into its menacing Stonesy riff. Written in response to a British Columbian bridge that collapsed last year and claimed a number of lives, “Vaccination Scar” boasts some of Downie’s most sublime imagery: “One thing I remember is / This tear on your bare shoulder / This little silver boulder, this slowly falling star / Never getting older where the moon shocked curtains part / The start of enough / A tear dropped in a vaccination scar”. Submerged in eerie bog-rock, “Gus: the Polar Bear from Central Park” searches for the reason behind the titular character’s troubles: “The mere mention of the name / Used to be enough to make every bird stop singing”. “It’s the way the dust clings to the air / After a stranger’s been there,” Downie chillingly notes in “Meanstreak”, the music cascading through minor-key noir behind him.
The up-tempo steamrollers “One Night in Copenhagen”, “As Makeshift as We Are”, and “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night” all fight for possession of the album’s most indelible three minutes—an impossible battle, I must confess, and one that leaves your head spinning with sound. The latter song, in particular, roars forth with a chorus awash in cymbal crashes and overpowering group vocals, like a bully whose thrashings induce near-rapturous results. Even colossal songs like these are left in the dust by “The Heart of the Melt”, which slips the Hip into overdrive and never stops to examine its wake.
Oddly enough, the album’s first two tracks are its weakest. “Heaven Is a Better Place Today” and “Summer’s Killing Us”, while both valiant attempts at battle cry rave-ups, ultimately don’t have the same chiseled definition of the songs that follow. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t necessarily important—11 great songs out of 13 ain’t too shabby.
In Between Evolution doesn’t break any new ground, but it sure knows how to stomp the hell out of it. All you young “punks” with your four-minute therapy session singles that populate corporate radio: quit while the money’s good, ‘cause you’re riding one big wave of bullshit that—if there’s any justice in this world—In Between Evolution will topple like a tsunami from the north. The Tragically Hip has come out on top this time, defending its title as Canada’s Most Loved Band, and now you all have no excuse to plead ignorance.