I should like the Tragically Hip. They are Canadian– though that’s really not relevant to me in that regard. They are fairly authentic: no factory beat, no synthesis. They are honest and hardworking and true and they ignored the temptations of American pop stardom and stayed here. They actually refer to Canadian things in their songs: hockey and Newfoundland and the CBC. The band itself is musically decent– far better than, for example, than Crazy Horse, Neil Young’s awful backup band for several albums. They can crack a beat. I respect them. But I’m not a fan. I tried. I loaded up four of their albums on my music player and listened to them on my walk. It only reminded me of why I never cared enough about them to have a collection of their albums. It’s their lyrics, mainly. Here’s a sample, picked at random:
I’ll be short and brief And to the point The fighting has resumed In that tone of voice The plague is exhumed He said “What I’m going through Is essentially all true Made no less amazing By the fact that it’s see through”
And here’s another:
You triumphed over will You had immunity to kill You had your dreams fulfilled And I love you still But there's a power beyond control There's a fire in the hole Ah the nights are getting cold All your secrets will be told Turn your lanterns low As long as you can dig up proof As cold as water through the roof Brutal as depicted truth That kid's a fuckin' goof Turn your lanterns low But there's a power beyond control There's a fire in the hole Yeah the nights are getting cold All his secrets will be told Turn your lanterns low Alright
What’s it about? The Hip’s lyrics, mostly by Gord Downie, are allegedly “poetic”. But the artist they remind me the most of is not Dylan, or Lightfoot, or Cohen– not by the wildest stretch of the imagination– but more like those pretenders, Mumford and Sons. Downie’s lyrics are really about any real idea or emotion or situation or insight or perception. They are merely fragments of isolated half-baked disconnected images without any real impact. “There’s a fire in the hole/Yeah the nights are getting cold”? Wait a minute– are you suggesting something about heat and light here, or something about a cold winter night. Maybe the next line will tell us: “All his secrets will be told”. Whose secrets? In the cold or in the hole with the fire in it? “Turn your lanterns low”. Why? Who doesn’t want the secrets to get out. Read the rest of the lyrics in vain for enlightenment: they are random images with no overall cohesion or purpose. The Tragically Hip’s lyrics generally suck. Tell me what this means:
yeah that's awful close but that's not why I'm so hard done by It was true cinema a clef you should see it before there's nothing left in an epic too small to be tragic you'll have to wait a minute cause it's an instamatic
Now, I don’t object to the idea of discordant or absurd images or sequences of images, but I do object to random images that have just one connection to any over-all artistic entity, and that is that particular track. Dylan has a long list of songs with seemingly random images but he is always either telling a story or commenting on the world in parody and creating a set of images that tell you something about the players in the story, or the narrator, or the object of desire, or whatever he’s thinking about:
They are selling postcards of the hanging They’re painting the passports brown The beauty parlor is filled with sailors The circus is in town Here comes the blind commissioner They’ve got him in a trance One hand is tied to the tightrope walker The other is in his pants.
Above all, Dylan’s images are almost always striking, funny, and memorable. Downie’s are not: “Hairbird plucks a hair from a sleeping dog/To build her nest, she said I’ve looked around and I like your hair best”. These lines really are lame, dull, and uninteresting, and incomprehensible– not because they are difficult to understand, but because they really don’t hold anything to be understood. They really don’t belong to an idea or an impression or a narrative or even an emotion. Does Downie believe there really is a deeper meaning to it? Quite probably. I would guess that Downie would not see a whole lot of difference between the quality of his lyrics and some of Dylan’s. The mistake here is not unusual. Some great poetry is allusive and obscure, but not everything that is allusive and obscure is great poetry.