By Jamie McNamara
Arts & Crafts
For the larger part of his storied career with The Tragically Hip, Gord Downie spent his time telling stories belonging to other people. From “Wheat Kings,” all the way to last year’s Secret Path, Downie himself took a backseat to a cast of characters steeped in Canadian lore.
Introduce Yerself, Downie’s posthumous 23-song double album, serves as an introduction of sorts to a Canadian legend that has kept much of his life private. Instead of telling other people’s stories, Downie is finally telling his own.
Downie’s best lyrics were always written to be humanizing at the same time as myth-making. On Introduce Yerself, he does the same thing to the people in his own life, writing plaintively about the people and places he cared most about.
Most of the songs here are about small moments like on “Spoon” and “Bedtime,” both stories about Downie marveling at his children. Or like on “You Me and the B’s,” about his love of the Boston Bruins that he shared with his brother. Every piece of Introduce Yerself feels like it has been scaled back to not seem self-indulgent. This is not Downie’s sweeping goodbye opus, but instead a quiet farewell to the people he cared about most.
In a press release accompanying the album, Downie said that the words contained on the album were written before any music was made. “A lot of these I wrote the words in advance like poems. I’d get one or two a day and then I’d have to stop. Because that’s about all… the soul or whatever, would give up. And then, so with music, it becomes pretty easy.”
Indeed, the music here, produced mostly by Downie and Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, takes a backseat to the lyrics, but it’s hardly a complaint.
The album is much less poetic than much of Downie’s past work, but it only serves to demystify the singer. These are some of the most affecting songs Downie ever put to tape, recorded swiftly over two four-day sessions in January 2016 and February 2017, with the finished album often reflecting first takes.
Accompanied mostly by sparse piano, acoustic guitar and drums, it never sounds like Downie is searching for the right words. Instead, he opts for an Sun Kil Moon-esque retelling of stories, fitting awkward, matter-of-fact lyrics into beautiful vocal melodies.
Much like Downie’s career, Introduce Yerself is a varied listen, swinging from upbeat reminiscing to mournful rumination over its runtime. Standout track “Love Over Money” is a short song about Downie’s bandmates in The Tragically Hip and their rise from playing small gigs in Kingston, ON to playing for the Queen of England. Elsewhere, “A Better End” sonically picks up where 2016’s Secret Path left off, powered by throbbing percussion and spacious reverb.
Thematically, Downie continues his crusade for “a Canada we should have never called Canada” on “The North,” a devastating account of the ravages of colonialism in the Arctic. It’s quintessential Downie that even on his final album, he still spends most of the time thinking about anyone but himself. His final advice for the “boys in the north,” and presumably listeners is to “turn our faces to the sun and get whatever warmth there is.” It’s hard to imagine leaving a legendary career off on a better note than that.