[27 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Years ago, I saw a YouTube video of Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie covering Guided by Voices’ “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” and wondered, what would Gord Downie sound like if he was in a GBV cover band? Well, the answer is pretty apparent on this new album, a collaboration with Toronto rock ‘n’ roll/country band the Sadies. Not that Gord Downie, the Sadies and the Conquering Sun sounds a lot like GBV, but there’s that spirit of Who-like energy, not to mention the very Robert Pollard song-title worthy “I’m Free, Disarray Me”. For the leader of Canada’s most Canadiana band, this marks a remarkable change of pace for Downie, who hasn’t sounded this invigorated in quite some time. There’s a real punk-like energy that courses through this album, and it’s all fairly highly enjoyable in a down back your beer in some scuzzy tavern kind of way. Some seven years in the making, Gord Downie, the Sadies and the Conquering Sun sounds remarkably cohesive despite its long gestation period, and marks a departure, but not too much of a departure, for all of the members involved.
The album kicks off with what might be the most GBV-inspired moment on the album, “Crater”. With its caterwauling guitars, and the album’s most memorable lyric (“Crater / Getting crushed in her dreams / Or is her dreams / Doing all the crushing?”), it’s a staggering start to the record. It’s a definite highlight and amongst the more rocking numbers to be had on a disc with a half-hour’s worth of rocking songs. Meanwhile, “The Conquering Sun”, which I guess would be the title track, has a more country flavour to it, and sounds more along the lines of what the Hip would sound like if they took a more western approach to their music making. “Los Angeles Times”, on the other hand, is more of a marriage of music between the Hip and the Sadies, and is a superb outing. It’s at roughly this point that you have to wonder how much the Sadies are trying to sound like the Hip, or how much Downie is trying to sound like the Sadies, and the end result is a potent and brisk blend of musicality. There’s real muscle in these opening songs, giving way to the endless possibilities that this collaboration may bear fruit. “One Good Fast Job” has a bluesy swagger to it, and might just be the most Stones-y instant on the entire record. There’s even a rather baroque moment that comes in the bridge, which is enough to keep things interesting.
Punk meets fuzzed out psychedelia on “It Didn’t Start to Break My Heart Until This Afternoon”. About two and a half minutes into this four-minute track, the band fires up its stun gun and begins to ride an affecting feeling of scuzz rock. “Budget Shoes” has a much more Spaghetti Western feel to it, and you can practically see the mesas and vistas conjured up by the majesty of this track. “Demand Destruction”, however, is a more left turn into jangle rock territory, and sounds a lot like the early Byrds crossed with their Sweetheart of the Rodeo country era. “Devil Enough” takes that ball and runs with it, being the most country song on the record with its laid-back pace and glorious mandolins. Still, the song takes a curve by having a much more rocking chorus, and the effect is a little lumpy. “I’m Free, Disarray Me” could easily pass itself off as a hidden Tragically Hip track, but, overall, it’s nothing all that special, and it’s about here that the album takes a dip. Final song, “Saved”, is a watery ballad and feels a bit incongruous as an album ender. leaving listeners holding the bag and wondering what’s next? The answer is, of course, absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.
One thing about Downie is that he’s taken very seriously in Canadian poetry circles ever since he published a book of poems, titled Coke Machine Glow. He’s seen as a poet who just happens to front a rock and roll band. However, with Gord Downie, the Sadies and the Conquering Sun, you get the sense a lot of these lyrics were hastily written on the back of a paper napkin, as there’s nothing as cryptic as his wordsmithing for the Hip. However, this rubs both ways. While, on one hand, you might think that this might be a little weak, on the other, it just goes to show that Downie, and by extension his bandmates, are having a terribly fun time putting the pieces of this album together. And that’s exactly what this album is: an exuberant celebration of the joys of country and rock music. It fits together remarkably well, and while, in the end, this might not be considered canon for fans of both outfits—Downie’s Hip and the Sadies—one can’t help but wonder what else could be born out of this collaboration. Could it be that in another seven years, we’ll get The Conquering Sun Part II? For now, this is a self-assured collection of songs, and will appeal to both the fans of Gord Downie and the Sadies, and possibly, quite possibly, everyone else who has yet to discover these two wonderful national Canadian treasures.