A Personal Overview of The Tragically Hip's 13 Studio Albums: Part 5 / by Aaron Adair

Part 5: Reality Tinges Interpretation (Now For Plan A & Man Machine Poem)

The emotion present in The Tragically Hip’s final two studio albums should be undeniable for any listener, but it really hits home for me on a personal level and as a fan of the band. I can’t help but connect to the tone of these songs through my own experiences as a cancer patient.

My wife told me that songs on Now for Plan A were influenced by Gord Downie’s wife’s breast cancer diagnosis. There is an excellent break down of some of the sections of each song in this CBC article.

Man Machine Poem is an album released after Gord D’s terminal cancer diagnosis; although, I understand that the album was written and recorded before he and the band received the news. 

Overall, there’s an honesty in these two records that hasn’t been as blatant in The Hip’s previous work. This is especially true in the lyrics and Gord D’s vocal delivery. The reality of the ups and downs of life comes through in a profoundly beautiful way.

Now for Plan A
In Part 4, I mentioned how I see a similarity to The Hip’s catalogue as that of Radiohead. (This is a stretch, I know, but it’s there.) As a fan of Radiohead, I’ve needed to listen to most of their records from top-to-bottom a few times before “getting it”. This also applies to Now for Plan A (and Man Machine Poem, for that matter).

There are a lot of really cool, and very passionate songs on this record (and multiple Sarah Harmer appearances! My Canadian rock n roll fantasy camp is one step closer!), but since it summarizes my relationship with this record so well, I’m only going to focus on one song in this entry: “We Want To Be It.”

“Drip, Drip, Drip.” The first time I heard this lyric repeated again and again in this song, I didn’t know what to think. The amount of repetition and the phrasing of the words is unique for a Hip tune. As I put the context of the struggles that Gord Downie and his wife, Laura, must have gone through, it all started to come together.

I thought of a husband sitting beside his wife’s hospital bed, desperate to help, but helpless in desperation. Sitting in a stale hospital room wishing that time would fast forward, so that all times could be better. Yet, the clock would be ticking as slowly as the drip from an IV/chemotherapy drip bag that would probably make the love of his life feel far worse before she feels any better.

The repetition now makes perfect sense. The pleading in Downie’s voice, reflected by the dynamic supplied by the band, is intense through this lens of reality. Downie is pouring his heart out for the woman he loves more than anything. He’d trade places with her if he could. And, he’s sharing this with his fans.

I can’t help but feel it may be Gord’s most profound poem, song, and performance. He’s baring his heart and soul, basically standing naked in front of anyone who’s witnessing this song. 

This song summarizes my whole experience with this album. I’ve written of powerhouse singles in previous blogs; there are none here. However, there is poetry and music produced with passion.

Other excellent songs: “Now for Plan A” (Sarah Harmer’s harmonies are a perfect blend), “Man Machine Poem” (there’s power and vulnerability on Gord’s voice. Great chord changes), “The Modern Spirit”, “About This Map”.

Man Machine Poem

In the first break in the set at the Hip’s first farewell show in Calgary, a guy seated next to me asked what I thought of the show so far. I told him, “Nostalgia and reality are making this so awesome in so many ways.”

This is also true of this record.

I understand that Man Machine Poem was recorded before Gord D’s terminal diagnosis, but the reality of his illness cannot be avoided when listening to this record. Like this record’s predecessor, there is a ton of emotion in the music and lyrics. Since the title of the album was borrowed from a song from Now for Plan A, this consistency from record to record makes sense. There’s no doubt that what Gord Downie and his family had gone through with his wife’s illness changed his perspective and his poetry. Still, one can’t help but interpret many of these songs as addressing Gord’s own illness. Again, with my personal connection to cancer, my experiences affect how I listen to these songs. In the end, isn’t that what makes art so great?

Highlights of this record:
-The mechanistic voice at the intro of the album is the most un-Hip-like production of all, but suits the song and album title so well.
-I have to admit that the first time I heard “In a World Possessed by the Human Mind,” I thought it was Arcade Fire. As I turned the radio up (yes I still listen to music on the radio from time-to-time), I realized it was unmistakably Gord’s vocal. This track is one of my favourites of theirs in a long time. The playfulness in Gord’s delivery, especially in the final verse, just makes me smile. Any Hip fan would picture that playfulness coming alive on stage.
-As I stated on Twitter a few days back, “What Blue” may be the most honest love song that Gord D’s ever penned. After digging into “We Want to Be It” on Now for Plan A, I will change my opinion slightly: “What Blue” is the most literal love song Gord Downie has ever penned: “I love you so much, it distorts my life / What drove and drives you drove and drives me too.”  Wow. He’s written some very romantic lines in the past, but this is a statement of never-ending love—again, reality tinges interpretation. I love this song.
-“In Sarnia” proves yet again that I’m not on the same level as Gord Downie (surprise, surprise). There’s passion, longing, and honesty once again.
-“Tired as F**k” is another one that makes me imagine Gord during his treatments, or helping his wife. I can sort of relate. After going through a radiation treatment a couple of years ago, the three words in this title were the ONLY way to describe the week that followed. My experience was nothing close to what Gord and his family have gone through, but the song speaks to me.
-The atmospheric track “Ocean Next” didn’t upload to my phone properly when I got this album, so I didn’t actually hear it until the Calgary concert. During the show, the last verse stood out to me so much that I had to write it down in my phone: “I’ll turn my music up/Listen don’t guess/At the centre of it, a little sadness [Reality/Interpretation again!!!]/ Ocean next, the thousand pictures/ Better than sex, or salt’n’vinegar chips.”  Seriously, how many people can get away with a line like that, other than Gord? A Hip fan can’t help but smile.

Hmmm.  I like that last thought. You know what? I’m going to leave it at that.

I’ll post a summary in the coming days.

Cheers for reading!