As I sit writing this on July 1st I’m wearing a hockey jersey and drinking from a can of Molson. It’s Canada Day, so when better to put together an Off The Shelf piece on my favourite band. The Tragically Hip are (in my opinion at least) probably the best band you’ve never heard of. The only issue I’ve got here is which of their albums to pick.
Okay, two beers later and a decision has been reached. ‘Day For Night’ makes the cut this time around, but rest assured I’ll probably write more of these about other albums in the future…
Day For Night is the fourth of The Hip’s studio albums and displays a growing maturity in their songwriting. Any LP that can open with the awesome Grace Too is automatically worth paying attention to, but unlike so many other albums, the best tracks are actually hidden away further down the tracklisting.
In 1995 the band left their Ontario homes and recorded the album in New Orleans with Mark Howard (Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, U2, REM) and Mark Vreeken (Leonard Cohen, The Headstones) producing. The result was an album of a type already becoming rare in the mid nineties – one that works as well as a cohesive whole as it does when viewed as simply a collection of songs.
As I’ve said above, Grace Too is a hell of an opener, but hidden away in the middle of the album is one of my perennial picks for the best song ever written, Nautical Disaster. Anyone who has listened to The Hip will know frontman Gord Downie has a propensity for stream iof conscious style lyrics but here that idea is taken to the extreme. The lyrics tell the story of The Bismarck, the German battleship who’s sinking in 1941 at the hands of the British has been immortalised as a turning point in the war –
“…One afternoon, four thousand men died in
the water here and five hundred more were
thrashing madly, as parasites might in your
blood. Now I was in a lifeboat designed for
ten and ten only, anything that systematic
would get you hated. It’s not a deal nor a
test nor a love of something fated. The
selection was quick, the crew picked and
those left in the water got kicked off our
pantleg and we headed for home.”
Then, as the song unfolds you realise it’s actually the vivid daydream of an individual – the song is a glimpse inside their head.
I could write all day about the tracks here, but for your sanity I’ll limit myself to talking about one more track. Scared is a bit of a sleeper, living in Nautical Disaster’s shadow it’s often ignored, but it’s a haunting tune that’s beautifully understated.
I’ll shut up now, before I start gushing (even more) about the album, but here’s a little something so you can listen for yourself: