In the life of a poet, very little is left to go unconsidered. As people who appreciate multiple levels of a situation or intention, and the nuanced differences of relationships, the poet-at-heart will frequently imbue their life (and body of work) with various and simultaneous levels of commentary: personal, political, social. Taking this as a given, one could reasonably examine even the covers of this new CD/book release from the artist still known in Canada as the voice of the ‘Hip, and glean clues as to the intent of the contents: Gord is now Gordon- which implies a more serious and personal intent. And upon investigation, the listener discovers that with the release of Coke Machine Glow, at least for the time being, Downie has shrugged off the hockey pads of Canadian Shield rock ‘n’ roll to publicly become Gord Downie, poet/ writer/ musician/ book publisher. This is a happy arrival for Downie, and the listener.
The progress to this end has been linear and recognizable. When most of our country were being introduced to the Tragically Hip, when ‘New Orleans is Sinking’ was current, they were a topic of discussion and hype: the archetypally unassuming crackerjack rock band/hockey team from Ontario with a wooo-he’s-crazy lead singer. Downie rapidly became known for Morrisonesque eccentricity: looping monologues over song forms, theatre-inspired stage movement, and innovative, referential writing. A monologue from the live version of ‘New Orleans…’ became ‘Locked in the Trunk of a Car’, and on it went. They are the Great Canadian Band, and still great friends, as bands will be after 15 years on the road together, but still until the making of this record, something had clearly and increasingly been missing. It is simply that different in atmosphere and texture.
As in a successful marriage, Downie is falling more and more in love with the mechanics of musicmaking- witness his increasing participation on guitar and veggie shakers within the band- and clearly wanted rejuvenation by way of exploring territory he can’t normally cover within the parameters of the group’s lineup. For example, the chance to sing alongside a female voice, to explore lyricism and melody beyond the sensitivity level and instrumentation of a stadium rock band, and to forcefully bust down the presumed wall of fame-related detachment we in Canada project upon our celebrities. It must also be said: to have the chance to do some really good work with some musical friends from Toronto, among them producer/engineer/pianist Dale Morningstar, filmmaker Atom Egoyan, former Rheostatic Dave Clark, Skydigger Josh Finlayson, New Brunswick’s Julie Doiron, the list goes on.
Their chemistry and sensitivity have produced a wonderful album, which marks an impressive change of dynamic for Downie, and shows the listener a range which had waited some time to come out.
Coke Machine Glo is really a record from and about Downie’s life. There are references aplenty to travel, hotel rooms, cities, loneliness, pot, and deeply cherished relationships thriving and dying. There is lots of fodder for good writing here, and Downie milks it with evocative, warm, occasionally cinematic-sounding accompaniments. The line between ‘song’ and ‘poem’ often gets deliberately blurred here: a full 4 tracks are spoken-word with incidental music. There are tasteful nods toward alt-country (including some gorgeous pseudo-Orbison on ‘Lofty Pines’ and ‘Trick Rider’), some indie rock, the languid perspective play of the ‘Hip (The Never Ending Present, which includes ‘Hip cohort Paul Langlois singing background on the chorus), and lots of work in the area of lyric melodicism and vocal interplay. Langlois and Downie work wonderfully together on this album as in their other band, and it must be said that without the pressure to ‘be’ the ‘Hip, they turn in better vocal harmony here than anywhere in their previous catalogue. ‘The Never Ending Present’ is beautifully executed by all, and will likely go down as the classic ‘Hip song that never was.
This has been no small feat: anyone else in Canada who were to openly release a spoken-word CD-and-book (which was the buzz) would be summarily dismissed as a pretentious sort of joke. Downie did it because at some level he felt the need for it to happen, and as likely just because he can. Good for him. He has the musical credibility, the personality, and the fan base to make it fly down the yard a little from the ‘Hip nest; therefore, it must be considered a personal and artistic success. It is very good listening: Downie writes lovely melodies when he doesn’t have to belt over a rock band, which is no insult to the ‘Hip: the two groups are opposite and complimentary sides of the same coin, and their legacy is ensured in Canadian cultural history. This release is like the bronze accents on the granite statue.