Full disclosure: I’ve been a Tragically Hip fan for about 25 years. I’ve seen them live at least 7 times. I pretty much grew up with this band, and they have contributed significantly to my personal soundtrack. As a 37 yr old Canadian, this experience is in no way uniquely mine. The Hip are regarded as a national institution in many corners north of the 49th parallel, if not a national treasure. For whatever reason, they’ve never “broken” in the U.S., or really anywhere outside of Canada. I am sometimes torn between wondering “Why? Why are we known for Bieber, Celine or Nickelback (and yeah, we’re sorry about that one), when this incredible band is right here?”, and being silently grateful that they have remained ours. Distinctly. Canadian. Such is the dialogue The Hip have procured over the years.
Earlier this year, the band disclosed that lead singer and lyricist Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It’s a curious thing to be given the heads up that one of your heroes is entering not only the final stage of their career, but of their life. The band will be going on the road for (what seems to be, though not confirmed officially) one final tour, on the heels of releasing their latest record Man Machine Poem….which brings us to this post, which is supposed to be a simple album review. Now that all biases have been properly disclosed, and context revealed, I’ll dive into the record itself.
Overall, Man Machine Poem seems to fall in place with the more recent Hip albums – a little less straightforward and a little more meandering. In a way, that makes it typical of a band that has had a great run of hits, and is still going. They still dig deep, but the appeal is likely for the already established fans, for the most part.
Guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois still weave to parts together that make up the whole, almost in a Richards/Wood manner, while the core of the tune is often found on Gord Sinclair’s bass lines. This is evident on tracks like “What Blue”, “Here In The Dark”, and especially “Ocean Next”.
Downie’s lyrics do seem to suggest a sad and reflective state. “Great Soul” encapsulates the mood of the album starting with “Nothing works/I tried nothing/And I’m out of ideas”, and arriving at “What’s today’s answer then/Nothing/Eternally, nothing”. A sense of struggling, swimming against the current permeates much of Man Machine Poem. I don’t know if he wrote them pre or post diagnosis, but listening to what is potentially his last record, that context is inescapable. Downie has always been part-poet, part-rocker and there are few instances where his lyrics’ meanings are clear, but it a song called “Tired As Fuck” seems pretty direct.
This record may not yield another all-time (Canadian) hit, like they churned out from Up To Here through Phantom Power, but it’s a solid turn nonetheless, and worthy of a great band, circumstance be damned.
If it is the last time I listen to a Hip album for the first time, so be it, and thanks boys. I feel lucky to have been along for the ride.