Man Machine Poem - The Tragically Hip
Quick, get your headphones.
No, not the earbuds. The good pair. The one’s your sister gifted you last year.
Settle in to them. Hit play.
This is not just an album of songs, but an album of sounds. Gord’s schizophrenic vocals, twisted by the convoluted workings of audio engineering, declare “I’m a man, and I’m a man. I do what I hate and don’t understand.” A soothing languid guitar, and then the drone of a low organ. If you’re looking to relive your glory days, you’ve come to the wrong place. The Tragically Hip are too often considered, though warmly, in the past tense. But Man Machine Poem is not an attempt to “get back their roots.” 30 seconds in, and this album is already thrumming with modern designs.
MMP is an exploration of groove and timbre. The swirling march of Man, the buzzsaw longing of In A World Possessed By The Human Mind, the steady drive of Great Soul, the precarious restraint of Ocean Next. While their songwriting continues to be a strong suit, MMP excels in developing an expansive universe of sound. Notice how the simple chord movements of In Sarnia hit cleanly and clearly amidst the cavernous ambience. Notice the percussive sound of a valve-amplifier rattling to the beat of Machine. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The opening track, Man, sees Johnny Fay’s driving kick-kick-snare punch cleanly through a shimmering sea of reverb. Downie’s layered vocals come in, fragmented, from everywhere in the acoustic field. He often takes a moment to drift from the ether, slowly into pitch, harmonizing with his past voices. The song eschews a traditional verse-chorus structure in favour of an ever-evolving cycle. It’s the type of piece where, without the traditional sonic landmarks, time seems to stretch and warp leaving the song feeling both longer and shorter than it’s five-and-a-half minutes.
In April, the band released the 1st single from MMP: In a World Possessed by the Human Mind. I quickly downloaded it, and proceeded to place it on repeat for eight straight hours. I would listen to very little else for the rest of the week – the more it played, the more it felt compelling. I played it at a friend’s backyard party, in my room in the dark, at work in the lab, on my way to have a difficult conversation. And every time, at 2:43, my body tenses with the ephemeral climax.
If there is a moment of “classic Hip” on MMP, it is undoubtedly What Blue. A smooth memorably melody is undercut with just-dirty-enough guitars and the bass harmonies of Sinclair. The syllabic structuring, at times, feels reminiscent of Eldorado. The instrumental arrangement harkens back to The Completists. But this time around, we’re blessed with a fuck-overdrive guitar solo.
This album’s thorax is defined by the stretch from In Sarnia to Tired as Fuck. It’s a rolling foursome, driving steady like highway 11 between Hearst and Nipigon. Here In The Dark bursts from the opening backbeat to rock steady until a prowling Sharksian bass-led outro takes us into the delayed call-and-response guitars of Great Soul. “Nothing works. Oh, and nothing works. I’ve tried nothing, and I’m out of ideas.” A thesis statement for indecision.
Dancing in Flamenco style, Tired as Fuck may be the troubador’s pick. It’s a delicately written tune featuring some of the best lyricism on the album. Gord has always been very selective about his use of expletives, and this exasperated usage may be one of his best.
Tilt your chair back (are you sitting?), until you’re just at the point of tipping.
Shortly after the release of MMP, there was one song causing controversy among my compatriots. Hot Mic felt out of place, a bit of “what’s it’s purpose?” But then, sometime in August while hungover and driving down the 401, I noticed I’d set it on repeat – it was finally clicking. The relentless 1-4-7 drum accents feel uneasy. The spastic lyrical phrasing is awkward. But that’s the point - the song hangs with you on your balanced chair, but refrains from collapsing.
On August 18, I arrived early to the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa. With the security guards distracted (or simply bored), I was able to poke my head in to briefly see a sound check of Ocean Next. Given my affection for a slow build, it’s unsurprising that this ended up as one of my favourite tracks on the album. The empty arena felt the perfect setting for a song paced for scarcity. It’s a bittersweet penultimate sound. It’s salt-and-vinegar (forgive me for being so on the nose).
The final component of MMP is Machine, which is one of the best Hip compositions in years. The bookend to Man, Machine pushes a harder edged vision that pairs nicely with P.K.D’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” The bass drives smoothly, the guitars float elegantly above. When the bridge builds to release, you’re left aloft for just a moment. This is what made me fall in love with The Hip. The transcendent groove, pulling you along twenty feet above the car you’re riding in.
As the album comes to a close amidst the quirky percussion and the android’s eulogy, take your headphones off.
Go for a walk.