Published Jun 15, 2016The Tragically Hip's 13th studio album is a darkly illuminated, late-career curveball likely to please and confound in equal measure. Rarely since their mid-1990s heyday has the multi-platinum-selling band sounded so intent on crafting something different.
Co-produced by Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene) and Dave Hamelin (The Stills), this is the Hip at their most challenging, and least immediately accessible. But while some of the experiments with texture and colour don't land — the Kid A-inspired opening track, "Man," is a little too Kid A-inspired, I'm afraid — much of the record is driven by a welcome sense of discovery and of artistic experimentation.
Propelled by Gordon Downie's distinctive vocals, the best sounding studio drumming of Johnny Fay's career and a relaxed intimacy between guitarists Rob Baker, Paul Langlois and bassist Gord Sinclair, Man Machine Poem is the Tragically Hip's most cohesive release since at least Music @ Work.
There is an undeniable sadness permeating this record. Haunted as it is by the recent revelation that Downie has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, it's very hard to listen to it as anything other than a swansong. Whether these songs were written before or after he began to grapple with the diagnosis, it's impossible to hear them now outside of that context.
A mostly downtempo and contemplative album, Man Machine Poem does feel in some ways like a twilight performance. Even on the few upbeat tracks, like lead single "In a World Possessed by the Human Mind" and "Here In The Dark," the mood is mostly blue here. Hooks and pop melodies are few, and tend to be left under-explored; a stormy atmosphere dominates. It is, in general, a difficult listen.
On "Tired as Fuck" (which, perhaps more than any other track here, bears Kevin Drew's Broken Social Scene fingerprints) and the heart-on-sleeve love song "What Blue," Downie paints uncomfortably honest pictures of his propulsive desire to carry on and the itching demand to take a rest. "I want you to enchant my days," Downie implores on the album's painful, slow-burning centrepiece, "Great Soul": "So what's today's answer, then? Nothing. Eternally, nothing." Heaviness.
Goddamnit, I just don't want — nobody wants — this to be the last album by one of Canada's most consistently rewarding bands. But what a piece of luck that we get to have this record. What a piece of luck that we've been able to enjoy their music for so many years. What a piece of luck that we'll always have the Tragically Hip. Fully, completely. Ours. (Universal)