There’s this scene in the new Tragically Hip concert film/documentary Long Time Running, where Gord Downie is preparing to play one of his final shows. He slowly, methodically, puts on his socks and undershirt before he slinks into a bright white metallic suit. This image of Downie – not as a frail husk – but as a technicolour giant has been burned into the collective Canadian consciousness.
But for his final offering, he went a more modest route that captured Downie at his very best: contemplative, emotional, and earnest.
For an album that has 23 songs about different people, Introduce Yerself by Downie – his final album before his passing on Oct. 17 – doesn’t lend itself to guessing games about the sources of inspiration. Some songs on this record are as plain as daylight about who they could be about with titles such as ‘Ricky Please,’ ‘Nancy,’ and ‘My First Girlfriend.’
Others come through the song’s narrative, most notably ‘You, Me, and the B’s’ – which is about Downie, his brother, and the Boston Bruins – and ‘Love Over Money’ which is about his Tragically Hip bandmates.
Of course, it is near impossible to divorce the distinct accomplishments of the record from the tragedy that’s elevated its emotional weight.
Comparisons have already been made with David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s Polaris Prize shortlist swansong You Want it Darker.
But what makes Introduce Yerself stand out from those two records is its mission: not to disappear in a puff of smoke or remind us of death as the ultimate equalizer as Bowie and Cohen’s records respectively did, but to serve as an ode to the meaningful relationships of one’s life and the power in channelling anger into genuine gratitude.
Like his last solo record, Secret Path, Downie teams up with Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew for the record’s production.
Acoustic guitars and pianos dominate throughout, but Downie’s vocals and lyrics are the ultimate focalpoint. One unexpected percussive touch was the use of hockey sticks tapping the floor in ‘You, Me, and the B’s.’ Downie’s lyrics can go anywhere from meandering, as they do in ‘Spoon,’ to terse like in ‘Safe is Dead’ or ‘First Person.’
For a man whose incurable brain cancer took a toll on his memory, Downie manages to recreate scenes and conversations as if they happened hours ago.
The image-heavy detail he incorporates in ‘My First Girlfriend’ in recounting a near-drowning episode Downie experienced in his youth is enough to move a listener to tears, especially as Downie’s death inevitably comes to mind.
The last track off the record, ‘The North,’ is Downie’s parting message to the country that both inspired and disillusioned him.
Nearly every obituary about Downie stated he was the country’s unofficial poet laureate. But with lines such as “you showed me a problem that is over a hundred years old, they’re parents without kids, without parents,” Downie subverts and challenges the idyllic version of Canada that was exemplified in some of his best songwriting.
Downie’s illness was ultimately the impetus to finishing the record as soon as possible, despite starting out as a project to be completed in piecemeal.
Many of Downie’s vocals on the record were taken from first sessions.
There are only a few instances in which songs feel incomplete, such as ‘Yer Ashore’ and ‘Thinking About Us,’ and perhaps given a few more recording sessions, those tracks could have been more fleshed out. But to consider that as a fault against the album is to disregard the effect mortality has on people, how it’s an actual race against time before it’s too late.
In one of the most poignant moments, and there were thousands to choose from, Downie sings, “then I poked you and showed you my hand, I’d drawn an arrow and underneath it said, introduce yourself.” Coupled with the album cover, a white hand extended with the words ‘Introduce Yerself’ on it, it’s a clear reference to Downie’s last months in which his memory had deteriorated to the point where he had to write down lyrics, set lists, and names on his hand.
The title track sounds like it could have been about anyone who crossed Downie’s path, from the friendly chauffeur to the tattoo artist on the Danforth. It’s so fitting and so moving that Downie wrote songs about distinctly Canadian figures in distinctly Canadian places until the very end.