Review By Brian Stanko
(Universal Music Canada)
Listening to what may be The Tragically Hip’s final album is a study in contrasts of expectations, of emotions, and of assumptions. One cannot listen to the songs and explore the lyrical content without considering the fate of singer Gord Downie, perhaps reading more into the songs than is deserved. As the band’s spiritual centre, Downie’s recent revelation of a terminal condition colours the experience and sets a construct from which a listener cannot separate. As openly as one would like to, one cannot listen without imposing contexts and preconceptions: was the band aware of his condition when that song developed? Was Downie thinking about his limited future, his almost knowable number of tomorrows when he lamented that chorus?
And as one listens, one cannot help but consider the comparisons with David Bowie, where his last album became an affirmation of life as much as an artistic statement. Is this Downie’s affirmation or just a man working to create art with value, regardless of his personal context?
The album’s cover shows a child apparently falling through space with a look of contained wonder and anticipation, absent of fear with eyes focused away from the expected outcome. The cover is a metaphor for the music. There is awareness of what lies ahead, but the focus is outside of that expected outcome.
“Man,” the opening track, begins with a synthesized vocal chant, haunting and a little manic with with what sounds like the line “I’m out of mind.” A droning refrain ‘You’re a real machine, I’m a real machine’ weaves through the song. The phrase is repeated at the end of the album in the song “Machine,” providing sonic bookends for the album. A secondary drum hit signals a ticking clock or a metronome, a motif that appears in a number of songs, suggesting an atmosphere of change and transformation. Many of the songs contain vocal lines reminiscent of chants and moans, foreshadows of life to follow?
The general sound of the album is a little thick- Downie’s vocals often blend into the mix, getting a lost in the thickness. Some of the songs deserve different sounds to accentuate the moods. A more distinct and dynamically vibrant sound would have been welcomed, but considering the situation, which a listener cannot escape, maybe this was a conscious choice.
“What Blue” is a gentle love song and “In Sarnia” contains a guitar solo that sounds like contained bagpipes. These are gentle songs full of atmosphere. “Here, In The Dark” and “Hot Mic” are the nearest to standard Hip rockers. “Here, In The Dark” contains the line ‘a thought that consoles me, is just a start,’ adding to the concept of time passing, a life moving through the textures of transformation.
The remaining songs “In A World Possessed By The Human Mind,” “Great Soul,” “Tired As Fuck,” and “Ocean Next” add to the atmosphere falling into a different space.
[styled_box title=”The Tragically Hip – In A World Possessed By The Human Mind” color=”black”][/styled_box]
Given the situation, the album will do well, with fans holding it close to their hearts, especially the ones who were shut out of securing tickets for the upcoming tour. It deserves to be heard and respected. It may not be their greatest work; there are no obvious classics that catch you immediately, but the material has a way of seeping into your consciousness after multiple listenings; transforming from songs heard to essence experienced. And maybe that is the true power of the album.
Man Machine Poem is a testament to the unity of the band and their proven work ethic. It is an album atmospheric and textural, full of unstated emotions and charged expressions. True, it is an album of dark shadows, but it is not an album of death.
One can read the title as a line of transformation: from man to machine to poem. From man as singular being; to man connected to the mechanization of life as thinking machine; to man with cosmic awareness, connected and separate from life-the human being as concept and an illustration of existence: man as poem.