It’s interesting to note that, after 25 years together as a band, the commercial profile of the Tragically Hip in their native Canada has caught up to their commercial profile in the neighboring United States. Those who have appreciated the Hip’s mixture of complex verbal poetry and febrile traditional rock for so many years may be disappointed, as the faint expectation was always that the inverse would happen. But those temporary towers never soared.
There are myriad reasons why the band has retained cult status south of the 49th Parallel while being counted among their home nation’s greatest artists of any stripe north of it. One more album review delving into those reasons can’t be of much use. But it is apparent that in Canada, the band’s youth or even young-adult market relevance is firmly a thing of the past, just as it was never really a thing of the present in America. As soon as they start spinning your peak-era hits on classic rock stations (which is the case with late-90s Hip tracks up here), it’s best to accept that the times are passing you by.
This hasn’t kept the Tragically Hip from touring (and the live setting is where they are truly in their element) or from releasing new music, of which Now For Plan A is their twelfth full-length offering. Produced by Canadian mixing-desk vet Gavin Brown, the new record follows a pair overseen by Bob Rock (dubbed “the Sound Tiger” by singer and published poet Gord Downie), who drew out the latent cornball arena rock tendencies in the Hip, not always to their greatest benefit. Brown’s presence and/or influence is more low-key, thus returning the band to an earlier even-keeled sonic incarnation in which there wasn’t much need to pay attention to who was producing their album. In other words, the album sounds like the Hip, fully completely.
Unfortunately, they mainly sound like merely passable Hip. The record has plenty of ambition to be more than passable, parcels of intelligence and integrity, and many individual elements that earn a place in the Tragically Hip canon alongside the coterie of classics. The strong features never really coalesce, but they often share space and fraternize occasionally. Frontman Downie is legendary in Canadian music for his inscrutable but evocative lyrics which are as widely considered pretentious nonsense as they are revered as perceptive rock poetry. But he has increasingly emphasized performance as he has aged and matured as an artist, and Now For Plan A see the band’s singer simply singing some of his most expansive, stand-on-tiptoes melodies.
These melodies work best when they are lashed tight to the trademarked menacing rock muscle of the Hip. This is the case on album-opener and early single “At Transformation”, featuring the sparring guitar jabs of Rob Baker and Paul Langlois jousting fitfully with Gord Sinclair’s burgeoning bass lines. Downie’s late renewed emphasis on performance has de-leveraged the considerable weight of his words, though. This is made evident both by “Man Machine Poem”, which matches lyrics of stultifying minimalism (“Terrific / Your eyes / Empty / Pacifics”) with soaring vocals and stellar lead picking from Baker, and the goofy onomatopoeia of “We Want To Be It” (“drip, drip, drip”, “tick, tick, tick”), which also succeeds on purely musical terms.
The impulse towards cultivating a poppier side of the band’s music is also a notable feature here, a clear carryover from the Bob Rock-produced records. “The Lookahead”, “Streets Ahead”, and “The Modern Spirit” are compact bursts of effective rock driven by drummer Johnny Fay’s persistent rhythm. They are seemingly constructed for a radio format that doesn’t exist anymore and would still likely ignore the Tragically Hip even if it did. But the charming anthemic ballads that have always dotted Hip albums are given moments in the sun, too. “About This Map” starts with some hesitant approximations of everyday speech by Downie, but is lifted by Baker’s guitar to loftier environs, while the lighter but more affecting title track features a relaxed Downie harmonizing with Canadian songstress Sarah Harmer.
Now For Plan A concludes with a big wet kiss to Canadiana entirely worthy of Downie’s established oeuvre: “Goodnight Attawapiskat”. Referencing a remote First Nations community in Northern Ontario whose mouthful of an indigenous name he relishes the challenge of shoehorning into a rock lyric, Downie subverts rock star tropes, recasting the starkly-populated Attawapiskat as the adoring audience which he is addressing. It’s a clever move but also a self-aware one. Even if the Tragically Hip can excite large concert crowds in even the remotest places (they have played shows in Northern indigenous communities before), Now For Plan A is not a powerful enough blow to re-open the closed gates of the pop mainstream that, at least in Canada, they once occupied. The band, in the final analysis, is looking for a place to happen, and this is a stop along the way.