The release of a new album by The Tragically Hip is always big news and highly anticipated in Canada. The country’s rock ‘n’ roll sons, whose music has been an integral part of our soundscape nearing three decades, would surely be listed on a Family Feud survey of the most popular responses to things synonymous with Canada.
However, the Hip’s new album, Man Machine Poem — their 14th studio offering — comes with both anticipation and sadness. It is likely their final original studio album in light of 52-year-old singer and lyricist Gord Downie’s diagnosis of incurable brain cancer.
He has responded well to treatment and the Hip — guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair, drummer Johnny Fay and Downie — will embark on a sold-out Canadian tour July 22 to Aug. 20.
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The album, produced by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and ex Stills member Dave Hamelin at The Hip’s home studio, The Bathhouse, was written and recorded before the singer learned of his illness in December and takes its title from the song of the same name found on their previous album, 2012’s gold-selling Now For Plan A.
“For those of you who need it — take it into your homes, your hearts, your cars and your late night come downs. Man Machine Poem — ‘you’re in my pocket and in my eyes,’” Drew posted on his social media. This week, the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Canadian Top 200 consumption albums chart and at No. 178 on the Billboard 200.
It is the band’s fifth No. 1 album in the SoundScan era (post 1996) and first since 2009’s We Are The Same. With 20,000 units sold, it surpassed the first-week sales total of Now For Plan A by 8,000 copies — that album debuted and peaked at No. 129 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. While the Hip hasn’t received the same kind of fanaticism in the States, at home it is currently the eighth biggest selling act in Canadian SoundScan era, with close to 3.5 million units sold and 8 million to date globally, according to Universal Music Canada.
The following is a breakdown of Man Machine Poem.
The lead track opens with a quirky manipulated machine-poem quite unusual for a Tragically Hip song, but as if to lay out the relationship between the band’s musical output and eventual commercial release: starts with man, recorded by machine and delivered as poetry. Perhaps that is a stretch, but the quietly inching, jangly base provides support for Downie’s floaty and overlapping lines, which are hard to decipher: “I’m a man and I am a man, so I do what I hate and I don’t understand” and “You’re a real machine / I’m a real machine,” it soldiers out.
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“In a World Possessed by the Human Mind”
The single, written as a conversation, begins with the lines “just give me the news / It can all be lies / Exciting over fair or the right thing at the right time / Everything is clear / Just how you described the way it appears, ‘A world possessed by the human mind,’ then later, “Girl, I was so afraid / You said, ‘You shoulda seen the look on yer face.’ Then I hope I laughed / Then I hope I said, ‘It’s fine.” Trying to figure out Downie’s mind is impossible, but the sentiment seems to be about jumping to conclusions and even paranoia, fear based on irrational thought and that everything is not what it appears; everything is fine.
In this simple love song about “the power to choose” and being “completely absorbed” and “our disenchanted paths,” Downie chronicles a relationship through its up and eventual down. But as he so succinctly puts it, in a lifetime, “what love looks like, it’s still the longest thing that I do.”
The first emergence on this album of a Canadian reference — good ol’ Sarnia, Ontario, which gets its own song. In what begins as a gentle beautiful acoustic number, Downie spits and yelps upon; it’s almost amusing: “You’re in my heart/ It’s in my pockets and in my eyes / In my blood / Sarnia, you’ve been on my mind,” the music get suitably raucous as he turns the Sarnia into a metaphor for a woman: “maybe she don’t love you / okay, go in, introduce yourself and be ready to leave it alone.”
“Here, in the Dark”
This track has Hip classic written all over it — even single. Attempting to interpret, it sounds like Downie is lamenting a difference between men and women that can pull a couple apart. Inspired by Ma Joad’s quote in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, he sings: “Because, I had your love, I took it into my heart / But my life was in my mind and yours was in your arms.”
Rumbling into a jangly piece, Downie confesses, “Nothing works. Oh, and nothing works / I’ve tried nothing and I’m out of ideas,” then repeats it verbatim to prove the point. But the words fall out slowly in poetic frustration, into a marvelous spurt of inspiration — tumbling fiercely, tumultuously, profoundly:
“If I’m disappointing no one, I’m disappointing everyone
And I know life depends on scenes like this
That drove and drive us on
But if god walks with persons* [a reference to a Pope Francis quote]
Does he run, run, run, run, run?
I want you to enchant my days
Onward, daily, forward, away
So what’s today’s answer then?
Oh and nothing works
I’ve tried nothing and I’m out of ideas.
“Tired as Fuck”
Released in May prior to the album as a teaser track, we are all well aware that Downie did not write this song after his diagnosis with brain cancer. But the following lines can be (mis) read as anything from a health struggle to the determination creative types must have and how tiring that can be on the brain to work to an exceptional standard: “Tired as fuck / I want to stop so much I almost don’t want to stop / See now then / Can’t and won’t /Will and can.” Of course, what Downie means is anyone’s guess.
Giving footnotes about his inspiration — WWI nurse and martyr Edith Cavell, screenwriter/playwright David Mamet and poet A.R. Ammons (Garbage) — this intense and dark rock song is perhaps a prime example of how great a lyricist Downie is. This is a standalone poem outside tradition. Few would have the skill to find melody for it. No word is superfluous. Each has been carefully selected from “convincingness” to “just” and the title “hot mic” tie-in to the opener “Man.”
A different piece from the Hip, almost unrecognizable. The acoustic song is pensive, gentle and sparse, Downie’s voice sweeping into the music. “Read, read, read. /Receive, lose, receive / Be happy, it’s all you leave / I’m so relaxed, little wistful perhaps / Ocean next.”
The album that started with “Man” ends with the song “Machine,” and picks up on those same words about the “real machine,” circling back to the original thought.
And throughout the album, there is Downie’s poetry, as important to Canadian culture as the literature and weighty quotes he draws upon from others for his own inspiration. “I write about words, I find treasure or worse,” he sings. Fans find treasure. Only the true artist finds worse. And that’s why he writes another.