With album No. 3, 1992’s evergreen “Fully Completely,” the Tragically Hip made it clear that it was much more than a Canadian curio or a slightly oddball bar band.
The album – which will be performed in full on Saturday as part of the band’s First Niagara Center appearance – was the Hip’s first high watermark. It was a perfect storm of abstract poetry, ribald grooves, wide-open-vista balladry, beautifully intertwined guitar parts, the familiar and comforting, and the odd and unsettling.
“Fully Completely” stood apart in a musical class of ’92 that included seminal releases from the likes of Pavement, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, Dr. Dre, Nirvana, Ministry and the “Singles” soundtrack. The band was singing about Canada mostly, after all, and singer Gord Downie’s lyrics were dark, twisted and gorgeous things, in no way associated with the neo-nihilism that ruled the day for most artists targeting Gen-Xers.
And yet, the album made sense in the milieu as a wholly compelling piece of outsider art, a collection that employed the tools of the day in the construction of something that was, to borrow a phrase from Robert Plant, a little bit to the left of heaven.
What made “Fully Completely” so fully and completely awesome?
It was, and is, the songs, first and foremost. Most were constructed from simple and straightforward harmonic raw materials, with no fat on their frames, the rhythm section of Gord Sinclair and Johnny Fay tasked to drive the machine forward with unflinching grooves, yes, but plenty of dynamics, as well. This was the first time the Hip worked with a big-shot producer, too – Chris Tsangerdies had collaborated with everyone from Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy to Depeche Mode and Concrete Blonde, and he was known for presenting clear, clean and uncluttered productions. He did the same for the Hip, adding a muscularity in the guitar department only hinted at on the earlier, equally great but much scruffier “Road Apples” album. “Fully Completely” simply sounded huge, particularly at high volumes, blasting from car radios like think man’s hard rock – heavy music, but thoughtful and introspective music, too. It would eventually sell a million copies in Canada alone, and it remains the band’s biggest seller on this side of the border.
You can tell an awful lot about an album’s depth by how many tunes from its roster the band in question is still playing a few decades after its release, and “Fully Completely” is clearly a go-to when it comes to constructing setlists for the band. “Courage,” “At the Hundredth Meridian,” “Locked In the Trunk of A Car,” the title tune, “Fifty Mission Cap,” “Wheat Kings” – these number among the band’s best-loved songs, and all regularly make the cut in concert.
The album’s cover art, by Dutch artist Lieve Prins, was both attention-grabbing and somehow indicative of the sensual musical feast beneath it. Depicting the band members in what appeared to be some sort of Bacchus-related frenzy, “Fully Completely’s” artwork was exotic and enticing, and unlike so much of the graphic design adorning the best records of 1992, it has aged incredibly well.
Late last year, the Hip released a deluxe edition of “Fully Completely,” which provided the group the impetus for this current album-playback (plus plenty of surprises) tour. In keeping with the band’s history as embraceable outsiders, the Hip didn’t wait until the popular 25th anniversary benchmark – “Fully Completely” is getting a grand 23rd birthday party, and why not? Like the band itself, the album has aged with dignity, and grace, too.