The Tragically Hip
Combined Rating: 79%
In early October, Gord Downie, the Tragically Hip’s unshutupable frontman and Brautigan style poet, did a great hour-long interview on Vancouver’s 99.3FM “The Fox” morning show. A couple of highlights and a gross overstatement:
1) Gord, in lieu of answering host Jeff Oâ€™Neillâ€™s question, opts instead to pester him for using the word “resonate” in pre-interview conversation. This happens twice. A station co-worker later joins in.
2) After being asked to choose a song from his then-unreleased new record to preview on air, Downie enthusiastically (and rightfully) picks “Family Band,” the catchiest song his band’s penned in almost a decade. Ten seconds of idle talk ensue, followed by the announcement that they can’t play the track because their copy of the record suddenly stopped working. They quickly play eight year old single “Poets” instead, cutting off Downie’s confused follow-up request for “The Kids Don’t Get It,” either not understanding or not believing that their copy of his record mysteriously wonked out just minutes after playing “In View” — their best rock single since “Poets,” and a #1 single in Canada around the time this record hit stores. Warms my heart.
3) Between terrible avian flu jokes and brief discussion about his cameo as a cop in the recent Trailer Park Boys movie (the cast from which he’d worked with years ago on the “Darkest One” video), Downie calls World Container, his eleventh record with Kingston’s Tragically Hip, the best they’ve ever made.
The album’s infamous producer, Bob Rock, joined in recently with his own hyperbole, dubbing World Container “My Great Canadian Record,” proudly usurping Simple Plan’s Still Not Getting Any. (Another gem from that bio: “they even said they listened to and enjoyed the ‘Dr.Feelgood’ album, that I had done in the 80’s with Motley Crue! Wow!!!!”.) And sure, of course they’re going to say that; few admit to making a shit record, and both are behind a product that 95% for sure won’t move units outside of Canada; they need all the help they can get. But Downie actually sounds sincere in his newest-album-is-the-bestest press banter, and for good reason. After his group’s decade-long search for a post-Phantom Power (1998) identity, and after coming to terms with their inability to penetrate the modern US rock radio wasteland, World Container sounds like the work of a band — Downie, drummer Johnny Fay, lead guitarist Rob “one with the hippie hair” Baker, bassist/backup vocalist Gord Sinclair, and rhythm guitarist Paul Langlois (via Wikipedia, and they never lie: “According to a popular legend, Paul Langlois once ate three 72 oz. steaks in one hour. He spent the first 45 minutes having sex with his waitress”) — regaining a sense of vitality and purpose.
Downie’s wrong, though, of course — this isn’t the best record the Hip have made. But eight years after Phantom Power’s triumphant comeback from the ill-received Trouble at the Henhouse (1996), they desperately needed another focused rock album like this, one that avoids spinning their wheels musically, lessening their reliance on Downie’s lyrics — at times the best this country’s produced since Leonard and Joni’s time, and always centuries ahead of whatever’s on your local modern rock station right now (“Personal stakes will get raised and get raised til your story gets compelling / If you lacked the sense or were willfully dense is forever in the telling” vs. “Girl you make it hard to be faithful with the lips of an angel”). Not that they haven’t been making good records since 1998, trying new producers in a ton of different studios in at least three countries, but the music became too predictable, showing only marginal growth each time out. Instead of the next Great album Phantom Power couldn’t help but promise, we got a bunch of almost-there’s instead: 2000’s Music @ Work, 2002’s In Violet Light, and 2004’s In Between Evolution (rated exactly 5% too high, my apologies).
World Container is also “almost there” in the sense that it’s not a Great album — not in the context of the the bandâ€™s discography, nor as an introduction, approached without twenty-three years worth of presuppositions and expectations attached. It doesn’t avoid all of their last record’s missteps, but it does thankfully manage to avoid its complacency: here, the band is very clearly trying to push themselves, upping not only the tempo but their willingness to experiment in small but appreciated ways with arrangement and structure — Spanish guitar solos, dance-rock bridges, more than three instruments, etc. Bob Rock levitates toward the lowest common denominator as only Tal Bachman’s producer could, but by some freak miracle only barely stands in the way of the Hip’s most consistent set of songs in almost a decade. For better or for worse, every track on World Container sounds like a potential single, a full-out attempt to reassure Canadian fans they’re done coasting on Hip-by-numbers filler, as well as another likely pointless olive branch to a US commercial rock audience currently eating up Sam’s Town like it’s as good as The Killers desperately want it to be.
For worse: “Fly” is home to the record’s only disarmingly capital POP chorus, paired with a boring bridge (“Fly, that’s right / Fly, yea, that’s right”) and verses straight out of Music @ Work’s “Puttin’ Down.” Then there’s the two overproduced ballads (shocking, given Rock’s past work with minimalists Cher and Bon Jovi): album closer “World Container,” a choir-backed power ballad remake of R.E.M.’s “Daysleeper” and Lennon’s “Imagine” (also referenced in the song: “He’s the one who couldn’t imagine / All the people living in peace / Yoo-hoo-ooo-oo”), and “Pretend,” aka the beautiful acoustic song that Downie plays in several annoying cut-aways in the “In View” video. Except that now it’s decked out with an unfittingly full arrangement that Downie at first doesn’t seem to want to play into, then later follows into melodrama; the song’s big climax, a compounding “You can’t pretend / yes i can Yes I Can YES I CAN,” is crassly shouted and pushed high in the mix, deflating its momentum instead of delivering on the kind of emotional cadence they’re obviously going for. A shame, considering how good the rest of the song is, even despite its producer’s inablity to grasp the alien concepts of emotion and subtlety.
Those are, thankfully, exceptions. “The Lonely End of the Rink,” “The Kids Don’t Get It,” and “The Drop-Off” play to the band’s long-ago defined strengths, giving some fairly straightforward rock tracks enough energy and depth to overcome their repetition, each exactly the kind of great upbeat single they’ve failed to deliver since “My Music at Work” (good Bruce McCullough directed video, best lyrics). Likewise, standouts “In View,” “Luv (Sic)” and “Last Night I Dreamed You Didn’t Love Me” faintly adapt (non-CrÃ¼e) ’80s rock/pop without overdoing the delivery like “Fly,” the latter even working in a brief but really great monosyllabic David Byrne hook (“You kissed my fingers and made me love you”). As small as these gestures — “In View’s” synth, “Yer Not the Ocean’s” piano, the title track’s Meatloaf-ish lead guitar, etc. — may be, they do manage to keep the album from falling into another retro-Hip trap, devolving into flat retreads like “Silver Jet” and “One Night in Copenhagen.” When this record does falter, it’s often when they’ve gone overboard with a new idea; which, yeah, is still frustrating, but far more welcome than Evolution and In Violet Light’s tendency to not go nearly far enough.
All things considered, World Container really is their most immediate and focused record in ages, making confident strides toward the kind of fully realized, career-defining statement their John Locke-looking frontman seems genuinely convinced they’ve already made. But then, assuming they can keep up this level of songwriting, and continue to to push their sound forward without a figure like Bob Rock around to stunt the growth, there’s no reason to think they don’t still have that kind of record in them. Especially when you consider the last time they were in this much of an obvious transition was with Henhouse — ‘cos if they could return from a disaster like “Coconut Cream” with an actual candidate for their best album yet (Phantom), it’s exciting to think where they could eventually take music this inspired and assured, given a capable producer and less damning muse.
Step one: stop working with the guy responsible for St. Anger. Please. 19,406 (and counting) Metallica fans can’t be wrong.
October 31, 2006