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The 'Transformation' of the Tragically Hip

What is the source of the Tragically Hip's magic? Why is that magic so difficult to convey to someone who doesn't hear, see or feel it for themselves? Why, when you pull the much-loved Canadian band's music apart and break it down to its raw elements, can you not pinpoint the core of that magic among the constituent parts?
The answer is simple. The Hip's charms are ephemeral, impossible to pin down, and certainly beyond the purview of plain old language. The magic is in the doing and the hearing, not the discussing. But I'll give it a shot. One more time.
The thirteenth Tragically Hip album, "Now for Plan A," out Tuesday, is a transformative one, as lead-off track "At Transformation" suggests.
The band's last two albums, "We Are the
Same" (2009) and "World Container" (2006), represented a musical breakthrough for the quintet, expanding the melodic palette and moving beyond the rough-and-tumble Rolling Stones-like churn of early classics like "Road Apples." The Hip learned how to write epic ballads, and marry singer Gordon Downie's impressionistic poems to a more grandiloquent sonic vision. (Producer Bob Rock helped the band considerably there.) Some "old school" Hip fans balked at the group's growth, however, interpreting it as a softening concomitant with aging and a diminishing of the early, edgy bar-band feel.
One doubts that the band members, if they did hear such grumblings, would allow their course to be altered by them. Nonetheless, "Now for Plan A" finds the Hip, intentionally or otherwise, forming a hybrid of its early primal swagger and the more sophisticated elegance of its "World Container/We Are the Same" period.
Suggesting, in many ways, that it is the perfect Tragically Hip album.
Folks thirsty for the raunchy strut of "Little Bones" or "Cordelia" might find comfort in the album's opening salvos. "At Transformation" is heralded by a snarky fuzz bass line from Gord Sinclair, before drummer Johnny Fay falls in with his trademark deceptively simple, but relentlessly driving four-on-the-floor groove. The twin guitars of Paul Langlois and Rob Baker do what they've long done so well - speak to each other in a gritty call-and-response, complementing each other with varied voicings of the chord progression, and creating a glorious wall of sound in the process.
And then singer Downie enters the fray.
Downie's genius - for he clearly possesses a strain of that heady stuff, as lyricist, performer and as dramatic storyteller - is most evident in his pacing and the manner in which he allows the narrative to unfold. He enters "At Transformation" in a half-spoken low tenor, elegantly leaping up the octave as the song builds to its chorus, which arrives as an emotive explosion befitting its yearning-infused lyric.
What's Downie so worked up about? Nothing short of transcendence itself, or the opportunity for it. "I want to be kind, not a bullet in the right place / Or just of two minds more important than importance," he sings, before positing this compassionate reach as "a glittering chance at transformation."
Game, set, match. The album could end here. Past strengths have been successfully welded to an in-the-moment ethic.
Happily, they're just getting started. As is the Hip's wont, things get good and weird good and quick. "Man Machine Poem" is unlike anything in the band's prior catalogue, as a gently pulsating rhythm introduces what at first sounds like a nebulous chord progression disconnected from Downie's top-of-his-range vocal, which arrives soaked in a glowing reverb. Then Fay tethers the band to the earth with another immaculately simple groove, and at once, everything is in its right place. Lyric-wise, the song could be an example of the cut-paste-reassemble ethos birthed by William Burroughs and espoused by the likes of Brian Eno and David Bowie, in which phrases are typed out, cut up, thrown to the floor, and randomly reassembled. Or perhaps not.
"The Lookahead" is an exercise in esoterica - "You weigh a snowflake / Cause great trees to fall / Descending on perfect arms / Like Jeff Beck / To give me the lookahead," Downie insists - but again, contrast is provided by the rootsy Americana implied by the interplay of the guitars.
Later, "Streets Ahead" buzzes along on locomotive steam, a slight distortion on Downie's vocal lending an edge to the verse, before it breaks wide open into layered vocal territory come chorus time. The song seems to be employing dog sledding as a metaphor for the relentless march of nature and time itself, and the propulsive push of the groove matches the racing theme without apparent strain.
The title tune is another in the ever-growing line of epic Hip ballads, this one moving with the ominous grace of a creeping glacier, somehow redolent of the northernmost reaches of the band's native Canada. "No matter how high or how rough / Nothing short of everything's enough," Downie intones, ably matching the wistful flow of the song's chords. Guest vocalist Sarah Harmer harmonizes beautifully with Downie here.
Throughout, producer Gavin Brown - who has worked with Metric and Billy Talent, among others - proves himself to be a worthy collaborator, subtly lending adroit sonic touches to the tunes without ever drawing undue attention to the production itself.
More than 25 years into the game, the Tragically Hip push onward. "Now for Plan A" doesn't represent a return to form - no return to form was needed. It does, however, speak of new possibilities born of self-discovery on the band's part. A new chapter in an ongoing novel, then.