This is tough going.
If you loved Gord Downie, even from afar and without really knowing him – if his voice, his poetry, his delightfully skewed on-stage presence, his beating heart parlayed through music, have been a trusted companion along the way – then "Introduce Yerself," his final album, released 10 days after his death from brain cancer, will hurt. Deeply and lastingly.
There's no sense dancing around the fact that this album is an accounting, a taking measure of a life lived, an acknowledgement of time's ticking.
It's a goodbye.
A haunting, minimalist collection of impressionist vignettes, 23 of them, each representing a person who'd factored in his life, "Introduce Yerself" is a celebration of Downie's gifts as a poet, for, as he confesses in a video accompanying the album's release, all of these tunes were simply lyrics on a page first; the melodies and ghosted chords that give them wings were added later.
Though his pen remained an impressionistic one until the end, these songs are less esoteric than much of his Tragically Hip oeuvre. Downie is not trying to be clever, but rather, to look these songs' subjects in the eye, and to say farewell, with a kiss. Unlike David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Warren Zevon – other still-vibrant artists who made beautiful albums while they knew they were dying – Downie does not choose to ruminate on death. Instead, he celebrates what his life has been.
One gets the impression that, when inspiration struck, it was captured on tape quickly by Downie and his friend and producer Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene), while magic was casting its glow throughout the studio, and emotions ran high and emerged raw, unfettered. As a result, the music sounds disarmingly intimate - supple piano, lightly sketched drum figures, occasional guitars, all enlisted in support of Downie's singing, which moves gracefully from breathy monotone, to soaring, ambient keening, punctuating meaning as it goes.
At times, a simple sketch is enough. At others, subtly orchestrated full-length forms are necessary. Whatever Downie, Drew and instrumentalist Dave Hamelin (the Stills) chose as a musical setting for each poem was, it's immediately apparent, the right choice. "Introduce Yerself" sounds not so much like a collection of songs, but a single song with 23 movements, in the same manner that many chapters comprise a single book.
"And their memory's like a train/You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away," as a particularly poignant Tom Waits lyric would have it. A similar conception underpins Downie's final work, as if the author is seizing images from a past that is eroding by the moment, his main motivation being the capture and representation of those images, the granting of a stay of execution, the time to say "I love you" before the train pulls away. For these are all love songs, after all, whether to a child ("Bedtime," which, 3 songs into my first listen, reduced me to sobs) a spouse, a childhood friend – the sublime "A Natural," one of the more polished of these 23 gems – a sibling ("You Me and the B's," which recounts the lifelong love of the Boston Bruins that Downie and his younger brother shared), or even, it seems, Lake Ontario itself ("The Lake").
There's a kiss on the lips for his bandmates in the Tragically Hip, in the form of "Love Over Money," a song that will likely mean much to serious Hip fans. Or to anyone's who's ever been in a band. Or to anyone with a heart still beating. ("Love – what led all we shared/Love – broken and repaired/Love - deeply misunderstood/Love – that's how we got good.")
Like so many long-term fans of his work, I find the world to be a less interesting, colder, emptier place without Downie in it, in these early days following his death. But I also find a weathered hopefulness worth clinging to in what turns out to be the last lyric sung by Downie on this, his final album. Maybe you will, too.
"Let's turn our faces to the sun and get whatever warmth there is."