Music, which has always been more of my forte, often doesn’t have this problem—a song is usually self-contained in a theme, and an album usually stands on its own as a complete thought. You can pick up a single Cure album and feel like you gained something from it without having to dig through their entire catalog.
But I currently find myself on the other side of this equation, as I dive knee-deep into the catalog of The Tragically Hip, arguably Canada’s most important band of the past 30 years, and one that tragically lost its lead singer and spiritual leader, Gord Downie, to brain cancer last month.
Now, to be fair, other bands from Canada have had more global success (ugh, Nickelback), more critical acclaim (Broken Social Scene, whose Kevin Drew was a frequent collaborator with Downie), or both (Arcade Fire). And I do have a deep appreciation for music from Canada—as a teen I was a sizable Barenaked Ladies fan, went through a lengthy Weakerthans phase, and I’ve been a close listener to Leonard Cohen for most of my adult life—but The Hip just passed me by, as it did a lot of Americans.
But the story of Downie’s life, his decision to stay artistically active (even flashy), and his push to highlight important causes in the last two years of his life has intrigued me, in no small part because it was all at a distance, a gap in my pop-culture knowledge. I felt like I had missed something important.
Certainly, I wasn’t alone. It’s shocking that a band this loved in North America had such a low-key American presence. They weren’t completely forgotten about in the U.S., as this excellent AV Club piece emphasizes, and there are examples where the band made itself known in the U.S. (just look at this Woodstock ’99 crowd), but all this chatter made me wonder if, when I was a teenager, I picked the wrong Canadian band to follow. (Nothing against BNL, of course, I don’t regret my years in the fan club.)
The result of all that is that I dove head-first into listening to nothing but The Hip, a band I previously have only heard in passing, for the last week-plus. And while I can’t say that I’ve gotten all the way through their catalog yet—it’s about as expansive as R.E.M.’s, to give you an idea, so it’s gonna take a while—there’s a lot to appreciate about what I’ve heard so far.
Downie’s skill as a lyricist is highly prized because his lyrics are often quite complex and layered. (When I mentioned I was listening to The Hip on Twitter, someone responded that they were “best enjoyed with Google open.”) A great example of this is “Fireworks,” from 1998’s Phantom Power. It somehow captures the energy around hockey’s cultural importance, the politics of relationships, Communism, and the temporary nature of life, all into four minutes. A hell of a lift, but the band somehow makes it look easy.
I’m just getting started of course—14 albums are easier to download onto your computer than into your ears. But that said, it helps that The Hip has perhaps one of the best-conceived greatest hits albums in history, Yer Favorites, which combines their biggest hits (of which there are many) with a number of fan favorites actually voted on by the fans. That means that the album is not only complete but it actually captures what’s great about the band beyond the singles.
Anyway, I would definitely encourage anyone else to consider the same if they haven’t listened to much of The Hip. I just wished I had done so before the series had ended.