A Personal Overview of The Tragically Hip's 13 Studio Albums: Part 1 / by Aaron Adair

I love The Tragically Hip. I’m not a super-fan who has seen every tour and bought every album right as they were released, but I still love this band. I love their music. I love what they mean to my development as a musician. I love what they what they mean to my country.

In honour of their final tour, I decided to listen to each album in chronological order so that I could track their evolution while taking a personal nostalgic trip.

I thought that I’d rank the records from 1-13, but I just can’t. The first four or five in a ranking are fairly clear for me; I could probably even pick the ones I relate to least. But, what I’ve found is that every record has its own identity; there’s a personality to each grouping of songs, to the production style, and—recently—to the circumstances surrounding each album that skews how I listen and relate to each word and note. 

Ranking chronologically sucks, so I’ve decided to be slightly more creative by separating the records into five eras that help me define the band. Please note that this overview is heavily tinged by nostalgia and personal taste!

Part 1: The Golden Era (Up to Here-Fully Completely)

Up to Here:

Hands up.  How many people would be happy if this were their debut full-length record?

All of you?!  

I thought so.

This record defines every recording that follows by establishing The Hip’s minimalistic sound and straight ahead brand of rock n roll. (I’ll define this sound more closely as this progresses, and perhaps in a future blog).

Over the years, I’ve listened to Up to Here countless times, but there is quite a bit of distance between now and the last time I listened to it from start to finish. After years of only shuffling through a few tracks once in a while, there are three elements that really stand out to me after a couple of full listens: 

1) The signature Hip sound. Rob Baker’s guitar glides and glistens throughout. Paul Langlois’s background vocals contrast Gord Downie’s tone, yet somehow blend perfectly. Speaking of Downie, there are bluesy growls and gritty yells that help paint the picture of each story. Johnny Fay’s drums drive the band and accent the right spots. Gord Sinclair’s bass rumbles along and adds a low-end melody from time-to-time.

2) Gord Downie’s storytelling. Each song on Up to Here is like a short story: a woman trapped in an abusive relationship (“I’ll Believe in You”), a prison break  (“38 Years Old”).

3) The subtle simplicity of each song. The roles of each member of the traditional five-piece rock band are fulfilled on this album—extra production is minimal. Also, no arrangement of any song seems overthought; many of the songs on this record have at least one of the guitars simply keeping rhythm through the three or four chord progression. The simple, straightforward approach makes each lyric and hook that much stronger.

The Forgotten Gem? “Another Midnight.” If it weren’t for some of the other tunes being so strong (“Boots or Hearts”, “Opiated”, “New Orleans is Sinking”, “Blow at High Dough”, etc. etc.) this may have been a hit. Maybe it would have been just that for any other indie Canadian band at the time.

[I have to mention here that I'm posting this first part on my last day as a 38-year-old.]

Road Apples:

Back when I was starting to get interested in song writing, I had a binder of cover songs that my brother’s friend had compiled. It was simple: lyrics broken into verses and choruses, with chords noted above each line. This binder taught me about rock n roll chord progressions; it taught me how to sing a song and strum along on a guitar at the same time. There were songs from Tom Petty and The Watchmen, but it was overloaded with tunes from The Hip’s first full-length records.

I remember the summer that I bought this record. I was heading to a friend’s midday pool party in the middle of summer, and I had a new Road Apples cassette in a little HMV plastic bag. I remember taking off the plastic wrap. I remember hitting play. I remember my friends being somewhat indifferent while I was focused on why this record sounded so good and what it was that made it sound unique from the highly successful Up to Here.

I probably couldn’t figure it out then, but as I listen now I hear a band that matured significantly as songwriters. Just listen to the arrangement of “Cordelia” versus the arrangement of any of the tracks on Up to Here. The melodies and stories are still strong, but the literal is becoming more figurative, and the straight ahead three or four chord rhythm guitar is dissipating in favour of harmony and complimentary riffs.

If Road Apples had a Works Cited, Shakespeare would appear a few times: Cordelia and Macbeth in “Cordelia”, Falstaff in the heartstring wrenching “Fiddler’s Green”, “Shakespeare’s bent to touch” in “Three Pistols”. 

This album is where the band starts to cement their legacy as Canadian icons. I remember learning to play “Three Pistols” but needing to look up who Tom Thompson was so I could sing this song. (Coincidentally, after they opened their August 1, 2016 show in Calgary with this song, it was stuck in my head for a couple of days—especially as I was paddling down the Bow River the next day, noticing how a mountain framed in the distance looked like a painting from the Group of Seven).

Forgotten Gem? “Long Time Running”. My God, is this ever a beautiful song. I saw that they played it during their first show of the final tour. I would have been bawling my eyes out—maybe as much as I did when they played “Fiddler’s Green” at the first show in Calgary.

Song that ties to the previous record? “Born in the Water.” That signature sound is there.

Fully Completely

Let’s just get it out of the way right off the bat: This is the single greatest achievement in The Tragically Hip’s discography. Hands down. No argument. 

It is a masterpiece. With all of the Canadiana infused into the lyrics, a non-Canadian listener may not get it, but this record is solid from top to bottom.

As I’ve mentioned, as I developed this overview, I listened to each of the band’s albums chronologically. When moving from Up to Here, to Road Apples, to this album, I can’t help but wonder what came over the band when producing this record. Each of the previous two albums are excellent in their own right, but Fully Completely is a rare blend of excellence in production, musicality, lyrics, and song selection.

Every Canadian should be proud of this record. From the prairie imagery, to references to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the CBC, to a shout out to Jacques Cartier, you just want to pour maple syrup over this album and devour every note. They even threw a loon call into “Wheat Kings” just to cement its place in our national musical lore.

Gord Downie’s evolution as a lyricist takes its biggest leap on this record. On their previous two albums, Downie sings in a prose-like fashion, as if he’s narrating individual short stories. But, the lyrics and phrasing on Fully Completely have space, and there seems to be a turn toward the figurative compared to the stronger literal narrative that appears in his previous work. 

You know what else is amazing about this record? The Hip have always been a great rock band, but just listen to how hard and heavy “Lionized” and “The Wherewithal” are. The latter could be on a metal record, but the minimalist approach to the arrangements and production along with Gord D’s voice make it blend so well with the rest of the record. Everything on this album just fits.

Highlight after not listening to this for a while? Gord Downie’s ability to approach songs like a poet and an actor (“Locked in the Trunk of a Car”, “Looking for a Place to Happen”). This really pops out for the first time on this record. He sang with passion and emotion on previous recordings, but nothing like the howl on “Locked in the Trunk of a Car”: “LET ME OUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUT!”.

Song that ties in the previous records? “We’ll Go Too” has the straight-ahead rhythm guitar that defines Up to Here and the Paul Langlois background vocals that are an essential part of the trademark Tragically Hip sound.

Forgotten Gem? “Pigeon Camera.” Damn.  That’s a good song.