Kicked Off Your Pant Leg
Dear Tragically Hip,
I wish I didn’t feel the need to write to you, but since learning the news, I can’t let it go. It’s not Alan Cross’s fault; he was just doing his job. It’s not Paul Langlois’ either. I’m not sure why musicians open up to Cross so easily (maybe the last name invites confession?), but Paul certainly did in that January 2011, in an interview on exploremusic.com. There to talk about his debut solo record, your rhythm guitarist was soon pressed for news about the future of the Hip. The band was back at work, he eagerly reported. He praised recent jams as “fresh” and “new,” the overall mood “great.”
Did I detect surprise in his voice? Maybe. This didn’t help either: “Let’s get better,” he said. “Let’s make a really killer record.” As if everyone in the band had recognized the undertones of strain in We are the Same from 2009. Nevertheless, Paul claimed things were going well enough to release a new album in a year, your thirteenth studio effort. That means it could happen any day now, if it hasn’t by the time this reaches you.
I’m writing to say I won’t be there for you this time. I can’t risk more disappointment. I wish I could accept the new you, good or otherwise, but my memories of what you were keep me from being fully present with you now. It’s hard. For so long, you were my band. You were Canada’s band.
Maybe we should be able to get through this. We managed to overcome a rocky start, after all. When a friend introduced us in 1989, we were all just kids, and all still figuring ourselves out. You were wobbling out of your barroom rock phase with Up to Here, your first full-length album, testing us with quirky poetics and a song about an Ontario prison escapee, a track that announced your intentions to produce unabashedly Canadian content and forfeit American success. It wasn’t love at first listen, but it felt like you’d reached under the table and laid a tentative hand on mine, and I didn’t pull away.
I was tempted: I knew I’d have to share you with so many. Sure enough, the national love affair was consummated in 1992 with Fully Completely, a record in which you gave yourself to us whole-heartedly. You sang for iconic Hugh MacLennan, for wrongfully convicted David Milgaard, for legendary Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko. The rest of the world could have gone silent. You were shocking and enigmatic, breaking out of the chrysalis of corporate
CanRock and unfolding wings capable of great heights and grace, but, it would turn out, as fragile as those of a butterfly.
That was just the beginning. Remember August 1, 1993? I saw you from across a stadium field in Edmonton, the
midday sky dark, the wind unseasonably cool. While grinding through the vestigial New Orleans is Sinking, your best-known single to this day, you broke hard with the past. The song paused for Gord Sinclair to shift into the brooding opening bass line of Nautical Disaster, a haunting track that set the tone for 1994’s Day for Night. “I was in a lifeboat designed for ten and ten only,” you sang. “The selection was quick, the crew was picked in order, and those left in the water got kicked off our pantleg, and we headed for home.” It felt like a shared epiphany then; it saddens me a little now. I’d never have dreamt I’d be one of those left behind.
Sorry. I’m getting maudlin. But Day for Night, moody and wondrous and strange, bound me to you in a way the other records didn’t. It compelled me to defend you to critics who said you’d lost your edge. They didn’t get you. I liked what you’d become. Loved it, in fact. You were smart, serious, poignant, risky. Trouble at the Henhouse proved it in 1996, comfortably balancing rock and art without straining to combine them. Creativity was exploration to you then, and, yes, perhaps it steered somewhat inward, but for me it grew more exciting with every track, peaking in 2000 with Music @ Work, one of your most experimental and brilliant albums—a fact possibly borne out by its fractional sales compared to Fully Completely, now diamond certified with more than one million copies sold. Your old lovers, attracted by the grit and swagger of earlier records, were backing off like they hoped this phase would break like a fever and return you to your old self, easy and uncomplicated.
Over time, I think it got to you, making you dissatisfied with yourself. You’d tried something on, but then treated your admirers as a mirror and fretted over the reflection. So you went to those first records for guidance, trying to once again inhabit the old self you thought we all wanted. Not all of us did. It felt like you no longer trusted us with your art, that you decided to withhold it. It felt like you just gave up on us. You remember, Gordie? That was when you started out with Coke Machine Glow, the first of three solo records—new receptacles for the eccentricities that had once enriched the Hip.
When we hooked up again in 2004, I had trouble recognizing the band. You’d regressed. In Between Evolution was simple, and abrasive, and absent of challenge, as if you preferred to update my memories of you rather than supply me with new ones. By 2009, it was over. With We are the Same you gave up on me, whether I deserved it or not. I suppose the album showed glimpses of what we once shared, like the lovely opener Morning Mirror, with its distant, country twang. The Last Recluse has that hint of discovery we always loved in you, that way you had of making us feel, all over again, like you were just then opening up to us. These might be the album’s best songs, but they are also the saddest, which is worrying—they spark more nostalgia than excitement. The rest of the record broke my heart, showing disregard, contempt even, for the reinvention that once was second nature for you. Jaunty Coffee Girl is radio-friendly and expendable. Other tracks are marred by bloated, dated guitar solos. Currency and innovation feel faked, like on The Depression Suite, a nine-minute stumble through a jumble of loosely related movements, and which is oddly acquiescent. “And I’m thinking, just in passing,” you sing, “what if this song does nothing?”
Whether or not this letter means much to you, I suspect you saw it coming. In 2005, you were inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame. This honour may have come at a low point for us, but I was still happy for you because it recognized what you gave us, not what you became. You knew it, too. “We find ourselves in the curious position of having to compete with our own past,” guitarist Rob Baker said at the time. “If we would have known that, we would have made the first seven albums really shitty.”
The past can do that; it can keep us from enjoying the present, even from looking forward to the future. Sometimes, though, it’s the other way around; the present obstructs our view of some cherished past. Sometimes even the future threatens it. I know that sounds strange, but I think that’s us. I don’t want a new record. All I want from you now are memories. The problem is, Rob’s right: those memories are only going to compete with what’s still to come. That doesn’t seem fair to you. You’ve got your own direction. It’s pointed away from me now, but it’s still a direction. Younger, I may have had the resilience to follow, but not now.
I’ll be okay on my own, flipping through old albums. There’s joy there for me still. One favourite in particular promises to help me through this. Like you did with Fully Completely, on 1998’s Phantom Power you encouraged Canada to love itself as much as it did you. Sure, you sang of small-town Ontario and mythologized hockey. But what really stays with me is the way you sang of spring, framing it in the oppressiveness of a hard Manitoba winter in a song called Thompson Girl:
She says springtime’s coming
Wait til you see
It poking through
With them shoots of beauty
It’s the end of rent-a-movie weather
It’s time to end this siege together
With that, you made it a season to unify a northern nation with its relief and release, its gifts of renewal and freedom, its visions of verdant futures. No one else could have made it sound like you did, and I don’t believe anyone will again. Not even you. Not anymore.