The Tragically Hip: Man Machine Poem

This may be this inventive Canadian outfit's swan song, but you don't have to cry. It's as good, if not better, than any of the band's past glories.

The Tragically Hip

Man Machine Poem

Label: Caroline
US Release Date: 2016-06-17
UK Release Date: 2016-06-17

Named after a track that appeared on the 2012 release Now for Plan A, the Tragically Hip’s 13th effort breaks the kind of new ground you don’t expect from a band 32 years into its career. There’s a temptation for some to read the record as a meditation on life and loss given vocalist Gordon Downie’s disclosure earlier this year that he has terminal brain cancer. But Downie has made it clear that the diagnosis came after the record was completed. The only thing we can do then is accept the record, probably the band’s last, as it is.

The collection has a darkness, a sadness that permeates each of these tracks. This is music about resignation, exhaustion, living, dying and coming to terms with it all. But this isn’t your father’s coming-to-terms-with-the-awful-world album. Sure, Dad grappled with existential ennui the same as the next guy but he did it in a different way, a different time. His generation built the bomb. Guys of the generation that birthed the Tragically Hip believed the bomb would never be necessary. They could reason conflict away and build a better world not with steel girders, suburbs and skyscrapers but with ones and zeros and invisible highways of hope and light that could build a database of knowledge so broad that we’d never have to worry about disease or ignorance ever again. That might have been a possibility once but now the light grows dim. The machines that house those ones and zeros radiate cancer and we’ve enslaved ourselves to them while men in those giant towers tell us that music and ideas want to be free.

The album’s bookended by “Man” and “Machine” with the opener sounding a bit like Radiohead. But it’s Radiohead unencumbered by technological trappings. It’s like five guys trying to remake Kid A in the garage. Those five guys have rarely disappointed but rarely have they created something that sounds this lovely, this vital. Lovely and vital it turns out are apt descriptors for “In a World Possessed By the Human Mind”. It’s a piece bereft of traditional hooks, absent any posturing and dedicated solely to haunting the listener, reminding them that reason and imagination cannot save us. As hard as we think, as good as we plan, the world has its own set of tricks and checkmates.

“In Sarnia” weaves and waves in most unusual ways. Downie works melodic magic with the notes in ways that few can. What he’s singing about matters less than the fact that he’s singing at all. Of course when we get glimpses of the words and contemplate their meanings we come to understand we’re in the presence of a man who wants to believe even if all the evidence weighs heavily against the optimism’s brave defiance.

The acknowledgement of those dark passages emerge on “Here, In the Dark”, the heavy “Great Soul” and the self-explanatory “Tired as Fuck”. “Hot Mic” stands as a panicked, post-millennial take on the Queen/Bowie classic “Under Pressure”. This time, though, there are no friends standing around to hear the shouts of “let me out” nor is there any reason to give anything one more chance. What’s the point of chances in a world that has so little meaning?

If there’s anything like a conventional track here it’s probably the slender and soothing “What Blue”. Upon closer examination it doesn’t provide the refuge you might expect from something so ostensibly upbeat, verging on celebratory. But you knew that and know that in your bones. This is music that exists in that uncomfortable crook of the pendulum swing between happy and sad, living and dying, the temporary and the eternal.

If this is the final record from the Tragically Hip, then let’s congratulate the band for going out as fiercely inventive and committed as when it came into the world.

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