There was never any way the release of “Man Machine Poem” (Universal) was going to be something less than a deeply emotional experience for The Tragically Hip’s legion of Canadian fans and its devout American cult audience. The recent announcement that The Hip’s front man and house poet Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer saw to that.
Hip fans are a deeply loyal bunch, not unlike Dead-heads. They view their beloved Hip as a band unlike any other, one worthy of seeing as many times as is humanly possible and one those on the outside of the fandom-bubble looking in will never quite understand. Downie is the barker at the gate of the Hip carnival. He’s unique - as singer, shamanic performer and abstract poet-lyricist - and Hip fans love him like a particularly cool older brother.
I don’t know if Downie had already been diagnosed when he and The Hip began to compose and record “Man Machine Poem,” but the fact the collection is at heart an expansive discourse on mortality certainly suggests he knew he might be making his last album with the band. Song titles such as “Here, In the Dark,” “Tired as (Expletive)” and “What Blue” underscore this notion.
What might come as a surprise to some fans is, for what could be its final album, The Hip has created one of its most bizarrely compelling collections. These songs don’t rely on familiar Hip tropes. They are often tense and dark affairs, with chord progressions that routinely refuse to resolve as one might expect and production values that echo nothing from the band’s back catalog. Credit producers Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene and Dave Hamelin of the Stills for at least part of this sonic density and intensity. For together, they have given drummer Jonny Fay one of the more aggressive and terse drum sounds in recent alternative rock, and the guitar tones surprise at every turn. Nothing is where you thought you left it, but everything is in its right place.
That drum sound lends a nervous dizziness to opener “Man,” a song that might well be The Hip’s assimilation of the influence of Radiohead, as it manipulates that twilight area where man and machine mingle and threaten to become one. This is one of the strangest tunes in The Hip’s oeuvre. It’s also one of the most brilliant.
Things don’t exactly settle into an easy-going groove from that point forward. Instead, we are offered the fractured, elegiac beauty of “In A World Possessed by the Human Mind” and the disembodied languor of “What Blue,” neither of which will satiate the desires of Hip fans hoping for a return to the gritty, four-on-the-floor guitar rock of “Road Apples” or the Indie-as-Stadium-Rock of “Fully Completely.” Yet what these songs gain by trading their straight rock sensibilities is a stirring, idiosyncratic brilliance that perfectly mirrors the disquiet in Downie’s lyrics and his always emotional, sometimes anguished singing. It’s a fair exchange.
What keeps “Man Machine Poem” tethered to something resembling solidity is the inclusion of soul-stirring pieces like “In Sarnia” and “Hot Mic,” songs that suggest an adventurous future for a band that is, incredibly sadly, facing serious challenges to that future. Downie sounds positively possessed here, and whether he is literally railing against the dying of the light, or only doing so figuratively, the effect is the same: transcendent and individualist indie rock with its heart on its sleeve and its head in the clouds.
We in Buffalo who have been with The Hip for decades, perhaps since that now legendary show at the University at Buffalo in the late 1980s, hope this is not the final word from this beloved band. If it turns out to be, we can celebrate that the Hip stayed a course of its own devising until the last light went out.