It’s an article of faith for many Canadian rock fans that Kingston, Ontario’s Tragically Hip is the best band north of the 49th parallel — or at least the best band that people south of the border have yet to pay serious attention to. The quintet’s chief allure is singer Gordon Downie, who brings an obsessive intensity to his stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Yet he works very much in partnership with bandmates Bobby Baker (lead guitar), Paul Langlois (rhythm guitar), Gord Sinclair (bass) and Johnny Fay (drums). Together, they lay down a blues-rock foundation solid enough to support a mosh pit.
Few of the Hip’s strengths are evident on the eponymous eight-song debut, an inauspicious start that only hints of the weight to come. Downie and Sinclair split the songwriting duties, a democracy not to be repeated on future albums: Downie’s “Killing Time” is the strongest contribution and Sinclair’s “Smalltown Bringdown” the most memorable in a concert setting.
Up to Here is a major improvement in all respects. Produced by rock journeyman Don Smith, the album launched the band to Canadian stardom and introduced several songs that continue to be concert favorites: “Blow at High Dough” (with the incendiary hook, “Yeah, I can get behind anything”), “New Orleans Is Sinking” and “Boots or Hearts,” an acoustic slide-guitar rouser that nails the emotion of a wounded lover (“But even babies raised by wolves/They know exactly when they’ve been used”).
By the time of Road Apples, the Hip had reached do-no-wrong stature in their home country, and the disc — recorded in New Orleans — justifies the rep. Taking the classic approach of outsiders assessing the city, the Hip allow a Southern rock influence to seep into songs like “Little Bones” and “On the Verge.” But Downie’s divining rod always leads his lyrics to warped images of Canadiana, so “Three Pistols” finds Canuck painter Tom Thompson paddling his canoe next to images of gunslingers and Shakespeare.
Comprehension of its ideas is evidently an open issue to the band: “It’d be better for us if you don’t understand” is a memorable line from “Locked in the Trunk of a Car,” the spooky serial killer meditation of Fully Completely. Recorded in London with producer Chris Tsangarides, the strong album places new emphasis on vocals, as Langlois and Sinclair step up for added harmonies to bring a sound more like R.E.M. than previously noted — a comparison the Hip strenuously turns back. Downie’s lyrical flair again makes its mark, with even more examples of arcane Canadiana in such tracks as “Wheat Kings” (a song inspired by a wrongly imprisoned Canadian), “Fifty-Mission Cap” (the story of Bill Barilko, a champion Maple Leafs hockey player who disappeared on a fishing trip) and “At the Hundredth Meridian,” a meditation on the vastness of America’s great plains, and what a fine burial site they would make: “Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.”
Tragically Hip songs have often hinted at themes of death, but Day for Night — perhaps the band’s finest work — is positively haunted by images of mortality. In its darkest hour, the band sets the imagination on a midnight ride: “Grace, Too,” “Nautical Disaster” and “Inevitability of Death” all embrace the undertow of our worst fears.
If Day for Night represented a peak in the Hip’s work, the only way to go was down. The self-produced Trouble at the Henhouse shows signs of fatigue, and the album suffers from a sluggish pace. There are some solid tracks, like the mid-tempo rocker “Springtime In Vienna” and the sly boogie of “Butts Wigglin’,” but too much of Henhouse finds the Hip wallowing in meandering psychedelica, and too many of the slower songs (“Sherpa,” “Flamenco,” “Put It Off”) sound too much alike. Recorded in Detroit on the Henhouse tour, Live Between Us showcases the band’s undeniable stage presence. “Fully, Completely,” “The Luxury” and “Nautical Disaster” are the Hip at their utilitarian best; Downie’s lyrical asides are particularly entertaining. In a revamped version of their oldest hit, “New Orleans Is Sinking,” Downie lets the band groove on a filthy riff as he sings an improvisational tribute to David Bowie and the Beach Boys. But the pinnacle of Live Between Us is “Grace, Too,” a stunningly powerful dramatic rendition of the Tragically Hip’s best — and darkest — song. Downie allows the fury of lines like “did you fuckin’ hear what I heard?” to raise the tension to the breaking point. Jaw-dropping.
The lack of Stateside success has had a detrimental effect on the Hip. (Referring to their limited worldwide success, drummer Johnny Fay once quipped that the Hip were “the world’s tallest midgets.”) Phantom Power, also self-produced, gives in to Downie’s worst tendencies — nearly every song is crammed full of oblique lyrics that only make sense in the mind of the writer. Worse, the songs lack the intensity that once made the Hip so powerful. “Poets” trots out a Stonesy riff but gives in to Downie’s nonsensical blathering, and “Save the Planet” is driving but directionless. Only the mildly clever double entendre of “Chagrin Falls” and the sweet, shuffling ballad “Bobcaygeon” pass muster here. Skip this one.
Music @ Work is a slight improvement, as the band focuses itself better behind Downie’s increasingly rambling vocals. The title track is a solid and sturdy rocker that could have been on Road Apples, “Sharks” is sinister greasy blues and “Freak Turbulence” is a suitably frenzied ode to a harrowing plane ride. Perhaps most evident of the Hip’s loss of vision, however, is the near-metal of “Tiger, the Lion,” which is as dark and intense as anything from Day for Night. Trouble is, Downie’s insistence on nattering aimlessly about John Cage undercuts what could have been a great song. Somebody’s got to rein this guy in.
In Violet Light does just that, but to little effect; it leaves the Hip neutered and ineffectual. The laid-back album isn’t so much a disaster as it is a non-entity. Songs like “The Darkest One” and “Are You Ready” are tired and repetitive. On the plus side, “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken” is a potent world-weary ballad, and “Silver Jet” rocks out with a bit of the old Hip spirit. But there’s something ironic about a band promising “there’s music that’ll make you feel great” (from “Use It Up”) and then makes an album as lifeless as this.
In Between Evolution retains some of In Violet Light‘s leisurely attitude, but manages to add a ragged charm to mixed effect. The opening “Heaven Is a Better Place Today” is untidy but winning, as Downie uncharacteristically underplays it and sings off-key. Most of the songs lack a discernible riff, with the stuttered guitar of the Neil Young-like “Gus the Polar Bear in Central Park” the only exception. But the album does find the Hip trying to get back to Road Apple-era basics. “I’m too drunk for this,” Downie sighs on “As Makeshift As We Are,” which sounds like a Replacements outtake circa 1987. While that would be a compliment for most bands, Tragically Hip always seemed destined for bigger things; this mildly entertaining but ultimately underwhelming album may be the best they can do this late in the game.