Decoding Gord Downie's final masterpiece
As a songwriter, Gord Downie wrote as many secret codes as he did break them.
He illuminated and obscured, oftentimes in the same line. Every song was a kind of truth from our bones, as well as home to a million covert references and messages. Downie's final solo album, the shattering Introduce Yerself, will be released posthumously on Oct. 27, a little over a week following his death from terminal brain cancer.
In the beginning, Downie was a flashlight searching the darkness for surprises, things lost, buried treasure, hidden meanings and arcane delights.
There were so many middles and he was so many different kinds of shine: a street lamp blinking in the snow; the sun glinting off of Lake Ontario; a neon sign crackling through the night. He was constellations, fireworks, a silver road in the moon.
Now, in his end, Downie is a lighthouse calling us home.
Recorded in just two four-day sessions in January 2016 and February 2017, the album was produced by Kevin Drew, who receives a co-writer credit on some of the songs. But Downie's lyrical hallmarks are evident throughout Introduce Yerself, and it's easy to assume that, with his diagnosis looming, he wanted to leave nothing behind or unsaid. That means that the codes in these songs require a different set of decryption tools. The tracks unfold like love letters and thank yous, bequests and graceful goodbyes, and tucked in between those things, a few moments of fear, anger and regret.
"I've gotten more than most and yet," Downie sings on "Wolf's Home," his voice soaring into the ether. A few songs later, he can't resist dancing the line between open-hearted vulnerability and macabre wryness. "What, wait, what?" he asks over and over, only to find himself answering the same way every time, "Safe is dead," his voice eventually giving way to a muted scream.
It's a marked contrast to the relative peace Downie finds on the affecting acoustic gem "Yer Ashore," a tiny tune — under two minutes — made all the more poignant for its repetition: "Holding hands, squeezing tight, there's no fighting anymore/ we're ashore, we're ashore, we're ashore, we're ashore." As Downie sings, pronouns change subtly: "we" becomes "you" and "I." It's the kind of simple song that can only exist as shorthand between two people who have weathered all manner of stormy seas and are finally, finally, on solid ground.
"Love Over Money" is Downie's salute to his beloved Tragically Hip bandmates. It's a tender tribute to chosen family, as well as a bittersweet and honest summary of the Hip's experience in the music industry. It's also wonderfully funny and self-deprecating: "Love over money/ you are my brothers and we've been through so much/ love over money, we've failed and we fell out and we got back up/ love over money, we've played to no one and no one plus one."
Introduce Yerself is also Downie at his most musically adventurous — some of the arrangements are unlike anything he's ever really done before — and quietly confident. This complements how he lived his final months, uncompromising and unwavering in his desire to make the most of his time, and dedicated to the reconciliation and decolonization that galvanized him.
There's an ominous urgency to "A Better Ending," as Downie's voice swoops open and arcs, drawing out certain vowels and syllables to convey the desperation in his words: "my advice is that you stay to the bitter end."
That song gives way to "Nancy," a sweet heartbreaker that begins with Downie singing, "Nancy I can't see from far away/ I can't tell you where I am today." By the time his voice curls around the line "makes me feel everything, hope and love, a chance," it's almost too much. From an outsider's perspective, it's hard to know for sure who "Nancy" is, though it's the name of his former mother-in-law, who also gets an acknowledgement in Downie's first solo album, Coke Machine Glow. Maybe it's the name of one of his four children, whose names have been diligently kept out of the media. Or perhaps it was inspired by someone with whom he had just one thing in common: the same diagnosis.
Nancy Justice was the focus of a 60 Minutes segment on a possible treatment for glioblastoma, the type of cancer that took Downie's life. Justice responded well, initially, to treatment and her tumour shrank, sparking hope in researchers and patients. Unfortunately, the cancer resumed its growth eventually, and Justice died, but she did live nine months longer than initially predicted.
Downie also honours Lake Ontario, which he calls the "love of my life" in "The Lake." The song beautifully captures his longtime commitment to water protection, the environment and home. "I always stared at the lake/ my entire life/ but I saw something there today/ the love of my life/ the lake has always been between the sun and me/ rather than blocking it/ it brings it to me."
The album closes with "The North," a hushed indictment of residential schools, colonization and the very existence of a "Canada we should never have called Canada." It's also a tribute to all of the survivors and the generations of Indigenous children who deserved so much more. Who deserved love, comfort, family, culture, their land. Who deserved to live.
Introduce Yerself is a devastating masterpiece, sprawling yet intimate, and even though it's (probably) Gord Downie's final solo album, it's aptly titled. This is an introduction to Downie himself, perhaps his realest self. It's also equal parts invitation and instruction to his listeners. At its most abstract and direct, Introduce Yerself is good advice for living, which is the ultimate codebreaker in the end.
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