The Tragically Hip make even the hoariest of modern-rock conventions seem like tossed-off abstractions.
As a venerable Canadian rock institution for over 20 years, the Tragically Hip have watched fashions change, cultural tastes fluctuate, and competitors rise and fall. Marked by a considered, confident approach, their intellectually and emotionally mature output has hardened into timelessness over the past decade. They've become Canada's edition of U2, albeit with a less obtrusive media profile and a less frequent habit of slipping into self-parody.
The Hip (as most Canadian fans call them) have refined their sound to an unassailable extent. Laying Gordon Downie's thoughtful lyrical integrity overtop of stately pub-rock, the Hip make even the hoariest of modern-rock conventions seem like tossed-off abstractions. Their influence on Canada's independent music sphere is undeniable but consistently denied; although critical darlings like the Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, and Great Lake Swimmers tend to encourage hipper associations with American and British alternative icons, both their artistic output and especially their success north of the 49th parallel would be inconceivable without the Tragically Hip's prior example.
Though always a solid bet, the Hip have experienced a recent commercial and artistic renaissance under the supervision of überproducer Bob Rock. Best known for his glossy work with metal giants Motley Crüe and Metallica, Rock's influence was evident in the lighters-aloft power-rock of 2006's World Container. We Are the Same brings the Hip and Rock back together and shares its predecessor's affection for stadium-rock flourishes. But this predilection is one worth embracing. Rock seems to grasp that the Hip's gestures to the masses are not the compromises to the mainstream that the counter-culture sniffs at, but rather legitimate outpourings of inclusive fellow-feeling. And who better to capture those outpourings on tape than the man who recorded Dr. Feelgood?
Both Rock and the band seem to be in a milder mood on We Are the Same. The acoustic picking that opens the crisp "Morning Moon" should suggest as much. The lyric is classic Downie: poetic contrasts of urban reality with rural nostalgia alongside intimate gnomic phrases, swaddled in a sweet melody. "Honey Please" follows, a poppy love song in the vein of World Container's hit "In View", featuring Barenaked Ladies' Kevin Hearn plinking out a piano hook in concert with Rob Baker's invigorated slide solos. "Queen of the Furrows" plucks mandolins and heartstrings, comparing a farm where "hens cluck and roosters crow" to a "Conversation City" where "everybody's talking".
But the record also finds the Hip mining the cornball-rock tradition that has made their producer such a success. "Queen of the Furrows" further features a big rock chorus and a maximum-cheesecore solo from Baker; he finds time for a better one in "Speed River". "Now the Struggle Has a Name" goes full-on power-ballad, Downie's mighty refrain trampling his more obscure verse exchanges with the enigmatic "Honey Watson". The three-movement "Depression Suite" has more ambitious goals in mind. Though it's a fine composition overall, Rock's signature is all over the wall-of-sound orchestra hired to telegraph the grandeur. Still, Downie pulls it in less heavy-handed directions, referencing Canadian wilderness author Farley Mowat and using his climactic melody to sing a baffling line: "Athabasca depends".
It's hardly all retro. "Frozen in My Tracks" tiptoes tensely through its verses before hitting the gas in the chorus, slamming into the angelic backing vocals like a Harley engine backfiring at a Funeral. Lead single "Love is a First" has a shout-along chorus that flips from the titular phrase to the complicating counter "Love is a curse", but winds up being a little trite. A distracting heap of electric-interference guitar and slam-poetry interludes, it has the same weakness as U2's overworked failure "Get On Your Boots": it tries so hard to sound modern that it winds up sounding like it's trying to sound modern.
It's the album's best song, "Coffee Girl", that summarizes the Hip's cultural emplacement. Downie assumes the same position favored by the Hold Steady's Craig Finn: the world-weary scene veteran offering sage advice to frantic youngsters. Over a stumbling beat, Downie mutters about the "beautiful and disaffected" titular figure, phrasing the observation with a sardonic fatigue that suggests the absurdity of the desire to be both. His barista heroine loves both an out-of-date mixed tape ("old Cat Power and classic Beck") and an anonymous heartbreaker who will inevitably offer her a false choice between "the Hardscape or your shoes". "Beware Purveyors of Cool / with their compacts of one", Downie warns. Following this advice has kept the Tragically Hip alive, and the aptly-titled We Are the Same holds the course steady.