Coke Machine Glow: a love letter to Gord Downie's solo debut

In honour of Gord Downie's 53rd birthday, a look back at the Tragically Hip lead singer-songwriter's 2001 solo debut, Coke Machine Glow.
Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip performs on Day 9 of the RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest on July 17, 2015 in Ottawa, Canada. (Mark Horton)

The Tragically Hip has always veered confidently into the weird or offbeat or slightly unusual. It's what fans like me have loved about the band since the beginning. It shouldn't have been a surprise then that lead singer-songwriter Gord Downie's solo debut, Coke Machine Glow, was as wild and beautiful as it was unusual — in structure, function, practice and artistry.

Consider the landscape unto which Coke Machine Glow took its place in 2001: among the biggest albums of the year, in Canada, were Shaggy (Hot Shot), Destiny's Child (Survivor), Nickelback (Silver Side Up) and Diana Krall (The Look of Love). And then there's CMG, which, in its earliest release, was co-packaged with a book of poetry by Downie of the same name.

The album features 16 tracks, including some spoken-word pieces set to music, 15 of which you can hear in the player above. From the opening notes — an almost whimsical, rolling wave of accordion bouncing along spry, sharp piano — it's clear that things are going to get weird. But it's impossible not to smile. It's a delightful weird, the kind of journey we've trusted Downie to take us on for years and years. And then his voice, quiet against the instruments, coming up from underneath like flowers pushing through soil, as he says this line from "Starpainters," the spoken-word poem that welcomes us inside CMG: "The myth is neither here nor there."

It's a disquieting line, but perfectly, purely Downie. Equal parts simple and profound, philosophical riddle, thought experiment (a la Schrödinger's cat, though of course that cat is both here and there), clever observation and esoteric musing. The record is bursting with insights, wry commentary and a tangle of plainspoken and highfalutin allusions and references. But CMG's songs and poems are really intimate portraits of the every day and the insurmountable — sketched with the same heart, a pendulum swinging between arch and vulnerable, observant and obtuse, the hopeful realist and the wise dreamer.

Downie's way with love songs (wherein love could be defined as any combination of romantic, platonic, familial, transactional or other) is unique and definitive. Even at his most open-hearted, his chief coping mechanism — humour — hovers close, a shadow at the ready. Whether he's singing, "And I found the end of the world, of course/ but it's not the end of the world, of course/ it's just a Vancouver divorce," or "It don't make any sense/ I'm in love with your every irrelevance," Downie's not afraid to explore deep, complex, emotional concepts, because the very act of anchoring his sentiments in levity is what frees him.

He's also experimenting with his voice, pushing himself to explore places he really can't reach, existing just under a falsetto that's almost tuneless on "Chancellor" and "Boy Bruised by Butterfly Chase." He wants to dance with and challenge concepts of vocal perfection and tone, and sometimes it's abrasive, almost irritating, but it's fascinating. This, too, might be a way of creating a bit of separation between himself and his songs, a way to cover up while still being revealing.

My favourite, though, is perhaps the most straightforward song, and the one that really does explore all love's multitudes. "Trick Rider" is exquisite, and even though I think "Bobcaygeon" is one of the best songs in the world, "Trick Rider" is Downie at his very best:

"I'll be your friend, your last refuge,
When things get weird,
And weird breaks huge.
I'll stroke your hair,
I'll dry your cheeks,
When failures come,
And no one speaks."

— Gord Downie, "Trick Rider"

Its instrumentation is hauntingly beautiful; it dips and deviates into these almost atonal crooks and creaks, all elbows and dark corners, a soft shuffle across the dance floor as the night crawls to a close. (In fact, all of the musicians on CMG — credited as "the Goddamned Band" — deserve a shoutout: almost every moment is perfect.)

But the best part of "Trick Rider," and indeed the entirety of CMG, is the way Downie's voice blends with guest vocalist (and incomparable) Julie Doiron to create something so intimate, soft and unguarded that you fully appreciate the concept of painful beauty. The pain is rooted in honesty, that's what they don't tell you. But Downie knows. Coke Machine Glow is proof of that.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner


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