When The Tragically Hip’s lead vocalist/poet laureate Gord Downie finally succumbed to his brain cancer affliction October 17th his final legacy was already in place. Downie’s 23-track `Introduce Yerself’, released Friday will service as his critical epitaph.
Yet as the quantity of material suggests, this was no quick four or six-track knock-off effort. The sheer depth of material indicates Downie still had a lot to say, even after receiving the shattering prognostication of his imminent demise.
Yet instead of retreating into privacy and foregoing the public scrutiny of his terminal condition, Downie rolled up his sleeves and struck out to make sure that his time left on earth was both productive and creative.
If we are to believe the timelines of his release schedule, Downie and The Tragically Hip had already completed production of their 14th studio album, Man Machine Poem when Downie was informed of his health issue. He had already completed production on the 10-track `Secret Path’ record, a companion piece to Jeff Lemire’s novel about Chanie Wenjack, a 12 year-old native boy who froze to death in 1966 trying to find his way home after been placed at a residential school in Kenora Ontaro..
And with serious doubts that a final concert series was feasible, Downie responded to his imminent mortality by launching into one more final recording session. Recorded initially in February 2016 before Downie’s condition had gone public, he collaborated with producer/musician Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene), knocking of 17 songs at the band’s Bathhouse Studios near the Hip’s Kingston home residence.
Then, when Downie and his Hip band mates (Rob Baker, Paul Langlois, Johnny Fay and Gord Sinclair) got the green light to embark on their epic 14-date national tour which concluded August 20th 2016 at their home town Kingston Rogers K-Rock Centre, his solo recording session was put on hold.
That historic final concert, hosted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau which featured a 30-song, three encore set before a televised CBC audience of 11.7 million people concluding with the poignant “Ahead By A Century” only served to postpone the final session which did wrap in January with the completion of 10 more compositions.
To judge the commerciality of this final 23-song session would do “Introduce Yerself” an injustice. What we have here is a collection of deeply personal reflections, songs that both celebrate his life and legacy, low-key arrangements, many achieved on one take, which focus on individuals who affected Downie’s life but also songs which deliver a positive reflection on his and the band’s achievements. Songs like “The Road, “A Better End”, “You And Me And The B’s” reflect a positivity that Downie managed to generate during this final months.
And the tracks aren’t mourning dirges by any means. “You And Me And The B’s”, “Far Away And Blurred” and “A Better End” reflect a more upbeat, positive message which counterbalance other tracks which encompass a full prism of the emotions Downie must have been going through when he wrote these songs.
Having songwriters create a final recording while facing their demise is not a novel concept. David Bowie famously released “Black Star” days before his surprise death. Likewise, Leonard Cohen won a 2017 Juno award for his `You Want It Darker’ posthumous release, Freddie Mercury famously struggled with AIDS as he finished off the band’s` Made In Heaven’ record which was released four years after his 1991 death. Even the likes of Gregg Allman, Chuck Berry and Prince were able to release recordings after their demise.
The big difference here is that where the deaths of Bowie, Cohen, Tom Petty, Glen Frey and Prince came as a total shock, the demise of Gord Downie had been pre-determined. The fact that he defied all medical advice to embark on that final tour (an event captured on the CBC Long Time Running documentary) and used his final days constructively to conclude his `Secret Path’ release and leave his fans with an album that celebrates both his life and legacy.
As public sports figures like Don Cherry, Ron McLean and even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reflected their emotion at the loss of Gord Downie, his fans can take comfort in the fact that the music of Downie and The Tragically Hip will be forever cemented in Canada’s national DNA image.