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 not really about any particular idea or emotion or situation or insight or perception. They are not. They have no particularity to them at all: they are snatched out of the air, fragments of isolated half-baked disconnected images without any weight or adherence. “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 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
Not only are Downie’s lyrics disappointing to me. I think they are just about the worst lyrics of any major band I can think of. Even Mumford and Son’s sound more coherent, with their ridiculous…
‘Cause I have other things to fill my time You take what is yours and I'll take mine Now let me at the truth Which will refresh my broken mind So tie me to a post and block my ears I can see widows and orphans through my tears I know my call despite my faults And despite my growing fears
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: that they happen to be sung in sequence.
I suspect that some of these writers have heard Dylan songs that struck them as random sequences of jarring images and ideas. They are seriously mistaken. Dylan 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 incredibly lame 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 his lyrics? 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 poetry.