Gord Downie’s Introduce Yerself delivers quiet yet powerful, fearless and joyous celebration of life
Tragically Hip lead singer Gord Downie, who died last week, reveals the private man behind the singer and poet in his final solo album, Introduce Yerself, which is set for release on Friday. (Ashley Fraser/Ottawa Citizen)
Even the biggest lives are defined by their smallest moments.
That’s easy to forget at a time like this. In the aftermath of Gordon Downie’s death last week, tributes have focused on his career, deeds and legacy — the albums and anthems, the accolades and awards, the activism and advocacy.
And, of course, the indelible mark the singer and his Tragically Hip bandmates left on Canada and Canadians. We needn’t detail his resume, but suffice to say: When your passing sparks a national week of mourning and reduces virtually every adult male south of the prime minister to a teary mess, you’ve done something right.
Of course, that was the public Downie. The private man was another story. And he’s the one we encounter on Introduce Yerself, the singer and poet’s sixth and final solo album due Friday.
Primarily written and recorded on the fly and off the cuff at the Hip’s own Bathouse Studio in January 2016, weeks after his fateful brain-cancer diagnosis, the sprawling 23-song album — in keeping with both its title and its creator’s freewheeling style — is something of a walking contradiction.
It is epic in length but modest in execution, quiet yet powerful, stark but rich, nostalgic but alive, sweet without being maudlin and rewardingly personal but universally appealing.
Most importantly, although created by a man facing his own mortality, it is an album that fearlessly and joyously celebrates life.
***** (out of 5)
It’s not just the glorious life of a revered Canadian rock icon. What flashed before Gord’s eyes on those wintry days of self-reflection were not highlight reels of fame and glory, triumph or even tragedy. They were intimate slices of everyday life. Like rocking one of his kids to sleep, taking a snowy walk as a child, BB-gunning tin cans in the backyard or mooning over his first girlfriend.
All the songs, Downie has said, were inspired by important figures in his life. A couple could be about his bandmates. Another sounds like it’s about a pet. A few might make you cry. Others will make you laugh. Nearly all are compelling. And thanks to their author’s poetic stream of consciousness, off-kilter flow and confessional vocals most are vague enough to protect the innocent (or the guilty), and create a drifting, dreamlike quality.
The music complements his words like well, a dream. Predominantly penned, played and produced by Broken Social Scene frontman and frequent recent collaborator Kevin Drew, these indie-rockers and artsy ballads are often bare-bones constructs: Simple piano lines, muted acoustic guitar, basic rhythms, noisy synths, warm ambience. It’s just enough to get the job done with no fat or fuss. Arrangements seem utilitarian and flexible, tailored to fit lyrics (or vice versa). Production is quick and dirty, with reverb giving Downie’s meandering warble a soaring, otherworldly lift. Everything conveys a sense of first-thought immediacy, first-take looseness and freewheeling creativity — one song features the sound of hockey sticks thwacking a driveway.
But mostly, the tracks don’t sound composed and created so much as conjured and captured. Coupled with Downie’s idiosyncratic entries, the sum is less a musical album than a photo album of random snaps, subtly refurbished and arrayed as a homemade present not only to their subjects but to all.
It’s far from the only gift Downie gave us, obviously. We’ve already received an embarrassment of riches: Decades of hits and albums and concerts and videos. Even more important than all that, of course, were the patriotic and humanist lessons and messages woven into the fabric of his art. In celebrating our land, its magic and its residents, Downie brought us together, helping us understand and define ourselves as a nation and a people.
On last year’s final, emotionally devastating Hip tour, he selflessly gave us the chance to say goodbye, even as he taught us once again about strength, perseverance, courage and grace, too.
Make no mistake, though: Introduce Yerself is more than a farewell present from Downie the musician. It’s a parting gift from Downie the man. The man who was a father, a son, a husband, a friend, a hockey fan. A man like us. A man you’ve known all your life, but are still meeting anew. Just in time to miss him more than you already do.