Part 2: Defining The Hip Identity (Day for Night-Phantom Power)
These three records are grouped together since they are the most important records for The Tragically Hip after their iconic debut trilogy. Separated by decades from first listens, I now see these records as the point where The Hip explored and expanded their artistry rather than following their previous models. This is where the band cements their legend in Canadian music.
Day For Night
I’ve got to admit that I’ve always struggled with my desire to love this record as much as its predecessors. After listening to it three times over more than 20 years after its release, I understand it in a slightly different way than I did years ago. Don’t get me wrong. There are legendary songs on this album, but it’s just not one I’ll return to in its entirety as often as some others in the band's discography.
Here’s the thing: As many bands do, The Hip could have gone into the studio after the monumental success of Fully Completely, used the same producer, and followed a similar format to recapture its essence and success. But no. Day for Night is almost the complete opposite of that approach (perhaps what the title hints at?), and this is why I have a lot of respect for this record.
When comparing this record to Fully Completely (which one can’t help but do), the production of Day for Night is far more raw, the lyrics more dark. “Daredevil” sounds like a live off the floor one-take track, an equivalent of a band ranting as opposed to the polish of the previous three records. (Note: This is actually a really cool rock tune—especially live.)
There are standout tracks that have stood the test of time:
• “Grace, Too”: Come on! When the full band comes in and lets loose together on the riff, you can’t help but nod your head and rock out with them. Damn! That’s actually a heavy riff!
• “Greasy Jungle”: One of those songs where you think, “What the heck made Gord put down these words?” And, if you’re not singing along in the chorus, check your pulse and make sure your affairs are in order.
• “So Hard Done By”: This track still slinks, creeps, and crawls the way it did the first time it crossed my ears.
• “Nautical Disaster”: I’m assuming this was the biggest hit from this record. What’s crazy about that after listening now? There’s no chorus in this song. Got a problem with that? Head back to “Greasy Jungle” and sing along. Oh! Also, along with “Grace, Too,” this song has the signature Hip driving outro. Love it.
• “Inevitability of Death”: Speaking of singing along, if you’re still reading this, you’ve probably sung this song to yourself many times, trying to perfect Gord’s tongue twisting wordplay: “I thought you beat the death of inevitability to death just a little bit / I thought you beat the inevitability of death to death just a little bit.” What’s that? You haven’t done this? You mean, like me, you haven’t hit pause and tried to mimic… OK, Maybe it is just me.
Trouble at the Henhouse
Am I right in remembering that this record was released on a Friday night? It seems to me that I lined up at a record shop close to the University of Saskatchewan at Midnight to get my hands on one of the first copies. But, hey! That’s what this band did to fans like me. Three epic debut records, a fourth that separated itself from the others, and now fans wanted to know what the band’s next move would be. Well played, boys. Well played.
Speaking of shifts in production, here’s another statement record that separates itself from its predecessor. Contrast the dark, raw production of “Fire in the Hole” on Day for Night, with the catchy, endearing acoustic guitar in the nostalgic anthem “Ahead by a Century.” (Since nostalgia is a major theme of this blog, remember the first image of Gord Downie playing an acoustic guitar when this album came out? Here was a signal of yet another change for the band.)
In the spirit of my test of time approach to these blogs, I have similar feelings about this record as I do for Day for Night. There are epic Hip anthems on here: “Giftshop” has everything that makes a Hip song a great Hip song; “Ahead by a Century” is in the running for my favourite Hip song of all time. The lyrics speak of nostalgia, and that feeling is even stronger over 20 years later.
In contrast to these hits, there are more songs that have Gord Downie experimenting with poetry and the persona that he brings to each song: “Coconut Cream”—does anybody picture Gord D. singing this with a smirk on his face? I laugh every time; “700 Ft. Ceiling” gets in my head once in a while since revisiting this album; and “Butts Wigglin”—well, the title alone.
Overall, like Day for Night, much respect for the band’s willingness to experiment with different approaches to songwriting and production.
If you’re a nostalgic Hip fan like me, you probably remember the period where everyone in Canada was waiting for the band to break out in the States. I’d always check their tour dates to see how many more shows were south of the border, and whether the venues were getting bigger. Dan Aykroyd even brought them on Saturday Night Live.
Well, we waited. Albums kept being released as #1’s in Canada, but we continued to wait.
As I previously mentioned in Part 1 of this blog, Fully Completely, easily their greatest achievement, was full of Canadian shout-outs, but these references were minimal on their next two records. Perhaps this was a conscious effort to make the songs more relatable to an American market?
Whether that’s true or not, Phantom Power is the lyrical equivalent of the entire band lining up at the foot of the Ambassador Bridge and giving any potential US record execs a full-bodied middle finger.
How many listeners outside of Canada would relate to a story for a girl from Thompson, Manitoba? Why would someone pinpoint a defining moment of a relationship when a girl is “loosening [his] grip on Bobby Orr”? And where or what the heck is a “Bobcaygeon”, and why would anyone ever sing about it?
Well, Gordie did, and we loved it.
This record, as the title alludes to, has a kick to it. That full tilt in your face rock n roll production that was muted on the previous two records comes out in force on Phantom Power. Although, it is interesting from a production aspect how the bass takes a step back in the mix in a song like “Fireworks.” Nevertheless, many of the songs are memorable, sing along anthems once again, and each seems to evoke a separate lasting image.
Standout tracks besides “Poets” and “Bobcaygeon”? “Something On”, “Fireworks”, “Thompson Girl.”
If I had a top 5, Phantom Power is definitely there.