A Personal Overview of The Tragically Hip's 13 Studio Albums: Part 3 / by Aaron Adair

Part 3: “It’s Evolution, Baby!”  (Music @ Work - In Between Evolution)

Here’s a group of three records where The Tragically Hip evolve their artistry by developing albums with individual personalities. It’s very interesting that outside of the opening song on Music @ Work, “My Music at Work,” there are no powerhouse singles (“The Darkest Ones” comes close on In Violet Light). This is a major shift from Phantom Power, but in a good way. After all, you can’t measure a great album simply on hit songs alone. Can you? (The answer is no, btw.)

This era in the band’s discography leads me to equate The Hip with Pearl Jam. Here are two bands that play straight-ahead rock music over an ever-evolving discography that contains albums that don't always rely on singles. They both have a loyal fanbase and a just-one-of-the-guys aura that pervades their careers (Think of this comparison when listening to In Between Evolution). It’s like how there will always be PJ fans who go to shows only to hear all the hits from Ten, and they’ll often leave disappointed since the band will focus on covering their entire catalogue. I imagine a few fans felt this way at a few of The Hip’s shows. At the August 1st show in Calgary, there wasn’t one song played from Fully Completely! But it didn’t matter: every song in the 2.5-hour show was amazing.

Music @ Work
Ok, so here it is: I don’t connect to this record as much as the rest of The Hip’s catalogue. Why is this? Aside from the opening track single and the hook in “Putting Down,” not many of the songs are as memorable as you would find on past Hip records. I also find that I don’t connect to the lyrics as much as I do with Downie’s work on other records. After my last top-to-bottom listen it occurred to me that Music @ Work would be a great achievement for most bands, but, like Day for Night, it’s not one that I’ll frequently return to in its entirety.

Let me put it this way. Sometimes I rate my enjoyment of a band on how I imagine them live in concert. If this were The Hip’s only record, I would picture them being a great opening act on a stadium tour across Canada. I’d go to the show, sit through their opening set, buy the t-shirt, and probably wonder why I spent the 30 bucks a couple weeks later. Then, a couple of months would go by and they’d come through town, headlining a small club. I’d go. I’d sweat it out on the dance floor. I’d love it for that night. Once in a while, down the road, while I’m driving in my truck “My Music at Work” would pop up on shuffle and I’d go, “Who the heck is this?” My wife would look at my phone, tell me, and I’d say, “Oh yeah. They were good. Weren’t they?”

Nevertheless, as part of a complete discography and an evolution of a band, of this band in particular, I can appreciate the band grinding out these songs together and evolving their creative process.

[Please note the humility that accompanies this reflection. I have never come close to (and may never) produce a record of this quality. It’s a good record, just not one of my absolute faves. We cool?]

In Violet Light

This is a really solid record. 

I love how the artwork creates the mood for the entire album, and I love how the band plays around with songwriting formulas that have worked so well for them in the past. 

Rather than continuing the Phantom PowerMusic @ Work feel, including opening the album with a power hit (“Poets”, “My Music at Work”), this record takes a little time to get going, but when it does, The Hip give three sing along tunes that reward their fans (“The Darkest One,” “It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken,” “Silver Jet”). 

This record sonically blends the laid back feel of Henhouse, the rawness of Day for Night, and even some of the straight ahead rock of Fully Completely.

It’s interesting to hear the band break from their traditional formulas on a few of back-to-back tracks. Check out how they experiment with different feels and time signatures in “All Tore Up,” “Leave,” and “A Beautiful Thing.” 

Is it just me? “The Dark Canuck” is a tune that has many elements of the signature Hip sound, but the song itself stands out because the typical Hip formula for a hit is not quite complete. There are two specific movements in this song. Three minutes in, the band shifts completely into the trademark heavy 4/4 rock sound with the powerful but minimal guitar tone and the driving Johnny Fay drums—the basis for a Hip hit. However, Gord Downie’s essential role in influencing whether a song will be a hit or not is cemented here. In this section of the tune, poetry takes precedence over a strong hook and memorable melody. It would be interesting to revisit this group of records with this in mind. [As I listen to this song again, I’m picking up Gord’s old Up to Here vocal tone…interesting. I dig it.] 

In Between Evolution

Remember how I said that I won’t return to Music @ Work in its entirety very often? Well, In Between Evolution is one that will always get a regular spin. Even though there isn’t a typical powerhouse single that everyone will belt out at a concert (except maybe “Gus: The Polar Bear in Central Park” or “It Can’t be Nashville Every Night”), there’s a strong personality to this record that makes me feel good as a fan of this band.

This record sounds like a band that got together, listened to some late 70’s punk, blended it with their own minimal style, hit record, and had fun. And, isn’t this what makes this band so legendary, so endearing? I remember looking at the artwork on Up to Here when I was a kid; the picture made the band seem like the guys who live next door in any Canadian town, rehearsing in the basement on a Saturday night—quietly at first, but with more intensity after Hockey Night in Canada. The music matched that image. It’s that image that returns to me as I listen to this record. There’s an alluring rawness to each song and the record as a whole. Kudos to producer Adam Kasper. Check out his resume: http://www.allmusic.com/artist/adam-kasper-mn0000597809. (Remember what I said about The Hip’s Pearl Jam-esque qualities?)

[I’m listening to “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night” again right now. What an awesome song.]