Saskatoon·Point of View

Why The Tragically Hip is more than Gord Downie's patriotic lyrics

I am like a lot of people in Canada when I say the first time I heard The Tragically Hip was in a vehicle on a gravel road.

The Hip created challenging and artistic rock music

People watching The Tragically Hip perform in Kingston, Ont., on Saturday should remember that the band created challenging, artistic rock music, says Eric Anderson. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

I am like a lot of people in Canada when I say the first time I heard The Tragically Hip was in a vehicle on a gravel road.

It was north of Morse, Sask., with my cousin, Troy Weppler. He popped in Fully Completely in the CD player and skipped ahead to track four called Pigeon Camera. 

The song struck me immediately because of the atmosphere the song created. It was dark and moody and I loved it. I was 10 years old and had never heard anything like it.

As The Hip prepares for its final show on their Man Machine Poem tour tonight in Kingston, Ont., much has been made of Gord Downie's patriotic and historical lyrics —and rightly so.

What has been perhaps overlooked is how musically adventurous, eclectic and wonderfully weird The Tragically Hip has been for the past 30 years.

Fully Completely

You can hear it a bit on Fully Completely, which came out in 1992. The songs were moving away from the bluesy-rock of their previous records and began to dabble in darker, more atmospheric songs.

(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Day For Night

That trend continued on Day For Night, the band's classic 1994 album. Songs like Grace, Too, Nautical Disaster, and Scared showed the band continuing to explore their musical palates and move away from the normal verse-chorus song structure.

It was in 1996, however, with the release of Trouble at the Henhouse, that The Tragically Hip's adventurous spirit hit its peak. Specifically, the final six songs on the album.

Trouble at the Henhouse

Trouble at the Henhouse is best known for hits Ahead by a Century and Gift Shop, but the last half of the record sees the band explore different sounds in ways few bands of their stature have ever done.

I view this album as a vinyl record.

The first six songs are the more straightforward Side A. The real fun comes on Side B, beginning with Butts Wigglin, a song anchored by Johnny Fay's incredible drumming and splashes of organ throughout.

Apartment Song and Let's Stay Engaged are mid-tempo numbers that take time to develop, have great guitar grooves, and looks at relationships in a very unconventional manner.

Put It Off is both quiet and incredibly loud and has Downie pondering if he can create art worthy of his newborn child on the day they were born. I wish I knew what Coconut Cream was about but I do know it features one of the crunchiest riffs the band has ever performed and ends with the sound of an airplane screaming overhead.

The true gem on Side B is Sherpa. This is not a song about David Milgaard or Bill Barilko or a small town in Ontario. This song is about creating an almost psychedelic mood and letting your mind wonder.

The incredible guitar playing of Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, who manage to make their guitars sound lit sitars, creates that mood. I implore you to listen to this song with headphones so you can enjoy all the boundaries the band pushes in just over five minutes.

There are songs like Sherpa hidden on every Tragically Hip album.

Man Machine Poem

Their latest record, Man Machine Poem, is book-ended by two challenging and sonically strange rock songs.

But on Side B of Trouble at the Henhouse, The Tragically Hip went down the rabbit hole and showed music fans they were more than patriotic storytellers. They were five artists capable of creating challenging and artistic rock music.

I hope that's not forgotten as we celebrate them in Kingston.

About the Author

Eric Anderson

Freelance writer

Eric Anderson is the communications leader for Sherbrooke Community Centre in Saskatoon and creator of the podcast YXE Underground. He spent nearly eight years with CBC Saskatchewan.