The Tragically Hip
First Appeared at The Music Box, September 2000, Volume 7, #9
Written by John Metzger
It would appear that — for the time being at least — The Tragically Hip have found the ideal partnership in producer Steve Berlin. Music @ Work is the group's second collaboration with Berlin, whose endeavors with Los Lobos have helped propel that band to the forefront of '90s garage-rock experimentalism. On the Hip's 1998 release Phantom Power as well as their latest effort, Berlin has helped the group to diversify their sound and craft more commercially viable packages. Make no mistake, the band's songs have always needed to be heard repeatedly in order to fully grasp them, but with patience comes great rewards. Their songs have a way of getting inside your head and seeping into your soul.
While the individual tracks on Music @ Work are not as gripping as the best selections from Phantom Power, the album as a whole does offer more consistency. On songs like The Bastard and Freak Turbulence, swirling guitars spew thrashing chords which crash against the relentless pounding of drums and bass in a surreal sonic assault on the senses. Like Pearl Jam, however, the Hip have learned that sometimes less is more. With each passing album, the band has tuned down their post-Byrdsian clatter to further explore a more organic rock sound — serving up delicious ballads like Toronto #4 and gentle acoustic-folk songs like As I Wind Down the Pines.
At the center of it all are singer Gordon Downie's oddly cryptic lyrics. His stream-of-consciousness poetry gives the Hip's songs a sense flower-child atmospherics, albeit with a dark, tainted view of the human condition. Yet on the title track, Downie makes the point that he is trying to improve matters by bringing his issues to light: "Everything is bleak/It's the middle of the night/You're all alone and/The dummies might be right/You feel like a jerk/My music at work."
Ah, if only the rest of his lyrics were quite as simple to comprehend. Then again, they're not meant to be understood as a whole. They're snapshots, glimpses, lyrical photographs, artistic musings. Call them what you will. The meanings don't initially jump off the page, but instead a few lines will stick in your head one day and based on your surroundings, you'll finally comprehend what Downie intended — or at least your personalization of it.
The Tragically Hip have had a wildly successful career in their native Canada, where they remain an arena favorite. Yet, the group has inexplicably continued to struggle in the more lucrative U.S. market. Go figure. Perhaps, Americans just don't want to hear music that makes them think. ½
Of Further Interest...
Music@Work is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2000 The Music Box