Gord Downie will be releasing a new solo album, Secret Path, on October 18th, 2016. The album chronicles the story of Chanie Wenjack, a First Nations boy who died in October of 1966 trying to escape the residential school where he had been placed. With Secret Path, Downie once again shines a light on Canada’s failure of it’s First Peoples. The album will be accompanied by a graphic novel, illustrated by the excellent Jeff Lemire as well as an animated film that will air on CBC on October 23rd, 2016.
In honour of this new release (and since I don’t have a preview copy of Secret Path to review) here’s an old review that I rescued from the bowels of the internet, originally written and published for a long defunct website.
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Gord Downie stretches his wings
By: Rob Laman
First things first – if you’re a Hip fan who feels that they lost their way after Fully Completely, then you’re probably not going to think much of Gord Downie’s solo project. The initial release consisted of a bundle containing the new disk and a copy of the book of poetry. According to Gord’s website, www.gorddownie.com, the disk and book are now available separately, although the University of Western Ontario in London allegedly still has bundled copies. This project is best suited for those of you who have always said that Gord is a poet and the Tragically Hip is a progressive rock band that’s difficult to pigeonhole.
Coke Machine Glow, the book of poetry, as well as the album, are proof that Gord Downie is more than just a rock and roll front man. He uses this opportunity to venture into some more experimental fare, relying on his usual poetic lyrics as well as peculiar cadence and turn of phrase. Add to this the All Star cast of characters that round out the rest of the project and you’ve got a delicious solo debut. This is clearly an opportunity for everyone involved to let loose and just flow.
The F.O.G. (friends of Gord) that help out are numerous and varied, ranging from Josh Finlayson and Andy Maize from the Skydiggers to Atom Egoyan, Canadian writer/director/producer known for films such as Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. Also making appearances are Jose Contreras from By Divine Right, Steven Drake, the former bassist for the Odds, Travis Good of the Sadies, Julie Doiron formerly of Eric’s Trip, former Rheostatics drummer Dave Clarke, Don Kerr, the Rheostatics’ current drummer and Kevin Hearn, of the Barenaked Ladies.
So, if these be the players, what then is the play?
The poetry is standard Gord. Lyrics referring to Canadiana, including a mention of Tim Horton’s, a song titled Canada Geese, another called Vancouver Divorce, references to hockey and Al Purdy, the minutiae observed while on the road, and life’s trials make up this book of poetry as well as the lyrics of the songs.
The minutia is not Seinfeldian, either, but poetic. A perfect illustration of this is the title of the album and collection of poems – “Coke machine glow” brings with it vivid imagery – it is a familiar image that needs little explanation and under normal circumstances would receive little thought. The joy of Gord is that as a poet he brings these images to us, making us take a second look at them.
Finding a Riot
Gord likes to manipulate the language; lines such as “the loss that made him dogged/ or it could have been the doggedness/ that caused the loss in the first place, I guess” are what makes the music exciting.
Another trait particular to Gord is his cadence – have you ever heard anyone linger so long on the word “riot”? He outdoes himself here, stretching the word “find” far beyond its one syllable and through a wide range of notes. He also uses an unusual rhythm and emphasizes notes and words unexpectedly. Keep an ear out for the word “to” in the lyric “We can talk just to ourselves/or we can talk just to the stars.” In typical fashion he puts emphasis where least expected.
Although most of the tracks are impressive, Chancellor is my pick for standout on the collection. Musically it is driven by piano and a steady drum beat. Gord rhymes along, following the beat in his own special way, emphasizing words unexpectedly and sharing his poetry. It’s a long way from here back to New Orleans. This is not to say that these days his lyrics have become less cryptic or tell more complete stories, but rather that he has a more poetic bent now. The emphasis is on the phrasing and how the words play with one another.
None of this is new territory for Gord Downie, but what is new is the vehicle he uses to present his art. Gord is first a poet then a musician. Rather than writing a good guitar riff and then coming up with words, Gord seems to have the poem in mind when the music is created. If you’ve seen the Hip live you know that Gord is constantly threading snippets of his poetry through the music, trying to find the right feel.
One of the real treats on this album is that we really get to hear Gord flex his vocals. This also isn’t new, but in this case, he’s not competing with big guitar and he is more focused on how he uses his voice. Added to this are the many harmonies involved. We hear him sing with Steven Drake on The Never-Ending Present, Paul Langlois on Lofty Pines and Yer Possessed and Julie Doiron on Trick Rider.
There are also four songs where Gord uses spoken word in combination with the instrumental music. The effect in each case is a lilting, haunting melody. He opens and closes the album with two of these songs, giving a feel of having come full circle. The themes of these two songs are also similar in that they both contain images of stars, night and sleep giving each song an overall feel of being in a dream.
The choice of guests really plays to what he’s doing on this album – it is a move in a different direction than the Hip. Each of the players brings with them their own feel so we get hints of flavour from the Cowboy Junkies, Skydiggers, Odds and Rheostatics. As well, the musical tastes are also a long way from New Orleans – we have guests playing mandolin, organ, accordion, classical guitar, xylophone, horns, fiddle and more.
While the Tragically Hip would never be accused of being a rock band in the tradition of The Rolling Stones, there is more musical variety on Coke Machine Glow than on all of the Tragically Hip albums combined.
Gord the Rock Star has used this opportunity to be Gord the Artist. He is being the artsy Toronto poet, giving us an experimental work, not in a Yoko Ono sense, but in a Canadian pop/rock sense. The musical freedom here, combined with Gord Downie’s poetry makes this album refreshing and satisfying.