So what if a band could release nine full-length albums that sound different from anything else in rock music? And what if that same band created songs with literate lyrics that border on the mystical, songs with poetic words torn from the fabric of the country's national identity that are picked over by critics and spark passionate debate in college dorms? And what if that same band's lead singer, Gord Downie, were so revered that some fans had quasi-deified him, by referring to him as simply the Gord?
One band -- Ontario's the Tragically Hip -- could do all this for 19 years and still perform a live show that, well, fuckin' rocks.
When the Tragically Hip play live, the only thing certain is that the audience that comes to see them will be ready not only for the visceral experience of a rock concert but also the cerebral rewards that come from digging so deeply into Downie's polysyllabic lyrics. His probing prose, which can border on creepy, deals with everything from escaped inmates, 18th-century explorers, Canadian prime ministers and dead hockey players. Guitarist Robby Baker says the intensity of it all can be overwhelming.
"People will spend a lot of time trying to analyze this song or that song or will latch onto one song that they say is their 'special' Hip song. But being at the live show has always been the definitive Hip experience," says Baker. "For us to think anything else would be just kidding ourselves. Writing and doing a lot of the other things in the music business is like when you take your date out to dinner, get her flowers, maybe go to a movie. But when you get up there in front of the fans, that's the part you've been waiting for, when you get naked."
The fact that the Hip attracted 26,000 fans to a gig this summer in Ottawa might suggest that there are some who believe that having a few cold beers and hearing songs such as "Courage" or "Fifty Mission Cap" in the presence of the Gord is better than sex.
Still, there's one quirky Canadian trait that sparks plenty of heated arguments back home that clearly irks Baker. And it has nothing to do with the fact that Canucks love to hate big stars who purposely woo the huge U.S. market, considering that unlike, say, Barenaked Ladies or Celine Dion, the Hip couldn't give a hairy rat's ass if their songs are played on U.S. radio or not.
Here's what has Baker steamed: Canadian critics are of two distinct minds when discussing the Hip, based on the premise that the band either peaked artistically when it released 1993's Fully, Completely -- the band's White Album, as it were -- or has built on that legacy in subsequent releases. That dichotomy has been evident in assessments of the band's latest release, In Violet Light.
"I understand that there was some kind of critical mass achieved around the second or third album. I won't debate that point. But what some people don't understand is that we haven't changed a thing in how we make our music," says Baker. "We are doing the same thing that got us to that point, by writing songs that interest us, and please us. Some people might be happy if we rewrote the first three albums over and over, but not us."
Yet Baker eagerly points out that many U.S. critics, who aren't exposed to the Hip-as-God dogma that permeates the band's every sniffle north of the border, like the record based simply on its merits. "Imagine some critic in the States, who gets 15 albums on his desk one day," Baker says. "Twelve sound just like Creed, and three sound like these new garage band throwbacks. But then this one [In Violet Light] sounds like a band that's more mature, with something to say."
On the latest release, vocalist Downie has done nothing to dispel his image as a deep thinker, voracious reader and self-critic possessed -- and often anguished -- by the minutia of his work. He quotes Robert Lowell and John Gardner in his lyrics, and was inspired to write the song "Use It Up" by a line lifted from Raymond Carver: "Use it up. Don't save anything for later."
Perhaps it was deciding to record the new record in the Bahamas or the break Downie took to record his own album, Coke Machine Glow, and perform solo shows mixing music and poetry before reassembling in September 2001 with the band to work on In Violet Light. Whatever it was, the Gord has come through with a mesmerizing performance on the new release. When combined with the alternately bleak musical meanderings or full-out rootsy guitar rock from Baker and Paul Langlois that back up his forceful musings, the Hip has created its most inspiring full-length work that is equal or even better than, you know, that other record.
Since the band's second release, its writing credits for all songs have read simply the Tragically Hip. According to Baker, for this band it could not be any other way. "Our approach to writing is almost strictly intuitive. No one comes in and says, 'I've written this song, and your part goes like this.' That would be pretty dull playing other people's music. Besides, it sows a lot of trouble when you have one or two writers in a band when the other guy says, 'Hey, I helped write the bridge.' Then you have one guy driving a BMW and the others ride the bus. It was a leap of faith for us, because sure, at the time we made the decision, we were not five equal songwriters. We set the template, and we fed off of it."
The creation of the artwork on the new release is an example of how the band members' minds meld. During the writing of the song "Silver Jet," Downie sang, "There's a heron outside inviolate light," which Baker misheard as " in violet light." The result was the album title and Baker's watercolor painting of a great blue heron on a misty Ontario lake that graces the cover. Other pieces of Baker's original work are being auctioned off to raise funds for wetlands preservation, and a limited number of prints will be sold on the band's Web site.
Though Baker has strong feelings about environmental protection, and the band is a well-known contributor to various social causes, he likes to keep that philanthropic identity low-key. "We're not comfortable with being politicians, so as for engaging in any public discussions, we're damned if we do and damned if we don't," he says. "There's nothing more disheartening than an entertainer spouting off if he doesn't have the facts right. Peter Garrett [of Midnight Oil], he knows his shit. Bruce Cockburn is another one, but I wouldn't call him a politician, just a singer who wears his heart on his sleeve."
But it's not like they totally shun the spotlight offstage. Like many Canadians living in the shadow of their loud, often abrasive cousin down south, the Hip do their bit to help their countrymen do a better job of keeping a separate identity, such as with the composition of the song "50 Mission Cap," about Toronto Maple Leafs hockey player Bill Barilko, who died in a mysterious single-engine plane crash in 1951, a few months after the team won the Stanley Cup. Here's the weird part: The Leafs didn't win the Cup again until 1962 -- the year his body was finally discovered. Members of the band were on hand during a Leafs game in 2001 to honor the 1951 team and to present a handwritten set of lyrics to Barilko's family. "Nobody takes care of their history better than Americans," Baker says. "There are these great American myths out there that Canadians are just as fascinated with, like what happened with Amelia Earhart. Nobody knew about Bill Barilko up here, and it deserved the same attention."