Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Pre-Polaris 2017 Day Two: Leonard Cohen, Gord Downie

The 12th Polaris Music Prize gala is being held on Sept. 18, at the Carlu in Toronto, where 11 jurors locked in a room will decide which one of 10 shortlisted artists will get $50,000. All other nominees receive $3,000.

Every day this week I’ll look at two of the shortlisted albums, assess their chances, and celebrate two albums that didn’t make the shortlist—or, in some cases, even the long list

On day one I discussed A Tribe Called Red, BadBadNotGood, and should've beens Phillipe B and Japandroids.


Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker (Columbia)

Gord Downie – Secret Path (Arts and Crafts)

Oddly enough, both these records came out the same week. I reviewed them together on Oct. 27. This is that review.

Happy Hallowe’en! Feliz Dia de los Muertos! Two of Canada’s greatest poets would like to talk to you about death. 

One is 82 years old: his body is failing him and he’s made a meditation on mortality that’s easily one of the finest records he’s ever made. [ed: he died a month after the album came out.] The other is 52 with a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer: he’s processing his own death by atoning for the death of another, a 12-year-old boy who died trying to escape abuse at a government-sanctioned institution. 

Cohen’s record is a revelation. He’s been this dark before, he’s made records this sparse before, his wry wit has always been in evidence. Here, however, every moment here carries great weight, lyrically and sonically. It’s as slick as anything he’s done in the last 35 years, but with largely acoustic instruments in place of synths. 

Great credit must go to Cohen’s son, Adam, who sat in the producer’s chair. Adam has (justifiably) taken a lot of flak for his own records, but it turns out he’s an excellent producer, judiciously employing only the most appropriate window dressing for the skeletons of blues and country songs his father wrote this time out. There’s the rumbling bass and choir of Jewish cantors on the devastating title track; the twangy, Twin-Peaks-ish guitar on “Leaving the Table”; the familiar sound of female backing singers on “Traveling Light” (one of only two tracks where that classic Cohenesque embellishment appears); the weeping violins. 

Both of Cohen’s recent comeback records—2012’s Old Ideas, 2014’s Popular Problems—have proven him to be as powerful as he is prolific in his third act, but this one is on a whole other plain. He claims he’s still writing and has more music he wants to finish. As insatiable as Cohen fans are, one can’t help but secretly—and, morbidly—hope that this is his final will and testament. [ed: it was]

[My Leonard Cohen obit in Maclean's is here.]

Gord Downie told the Globe and Mail last weekend, “If Secret Path is the last thing I ever do, I’ll be happy.” 

He’s already succeeded on one level: he’s taken a long-forgotten tragic tale, that of a 12-year-old boy, Chanie Wenjack, who died of exposure, beside train tracks, trying to walk 600 km home from a residential school. That was exactly 50 years ago; a Maclean’s story was written about the case after an inquest took place—an inquest whose recommendations, of course, went unheeded. Unless you’ve had a media blackout, you probably already know that this album comes with a graphic novel by Jeff Lemire (Essex County) and an animated film aired on CBC-TV. There are several other Wenjack projects out there as well, including a Joseph Boyden novella; Boyden also talks about the case on the new Tribe Called Red album. 

There’s a lot to unpack here: but what about the music? The production by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and the Stills’ Dave Hamelin is crisp and sparse, in ways that sound like nothing else Downie has ever recorded. The result is that his voice sounds fantastic; it’s unclear if he’s become a better singer, or if he’s just never allowed us to hear him like this, not even during the most fragile moments of his discography both in and outside the Tragically Hip, not even 2001’s Coke Machine Glow. [ed note: I’m a complete idiot. Downie had upped his singing game as far back as 2006’s World Container.] Drew and Hamelin know how to create vast soundscapes with minimal instrumentation, the right synths and plenty of reverb, evoking the appropriate sense of isolation and empathy necessary for the subject matter. 

The lyrics are curious. Gord Downie never does anything directly; hell, even that song about Bill Barilko is narrated by some young punk feigning experience, a trait that’s personified in his makeshift, faux fifty-mission cap. Secret Path does not tell the story of Chanie Wenjack, at least not a narrative recognizable to anyone who read the Maclean’s story that inspired the album. Instead, it draws some elements of Wenjack’s story—like the fact he set out on the final leg of his journey with only seven matches in a jar and a windbreaker to provide him warmth—and extrapolates from there. If you heard any track here out of context, you’d be hard pressed to link it to Wenjack or, in fact, anything remotely related to issues illuminated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The good news: it’s not a preachy record, not in the least. The bad news: it’s unclear how effective it is as a teaching tool, which was the intention of Downie and his brother Mike, a filmmaker. 

But because this is Gord Downie in 2016, immediately following one of the landmark cultural events of this generation, he has our ears. And he’s using the moment to not necessarily tell the story, but to draw our attention to a story mainstream Canada has not wanted to tell.  

Later thoughts:

We’re now almost a year removed from the emotional weight that accompanied these records’ release. We’ve lost Leonard, which was not a shock to anyone, and yet the outpouring of grief was enormous, just as it was for David Bowie and Prince the same calendar year. That he went out on such a high note is a glorious epitaph; this record didn’t rack up Junos and a spot on this shortlist out of sympathy—it’s a stunning work that stands with his very best.

While we mourn Cohen, there’s also the relief that Downie is still with us to see his message taken to heart, to receive an Order of Canada, to see this album get shortlisted for Polaris—something no other Tragically Hip record or Downie solo project has done. Most important, he’s been able to see his primary goal achieved, to see Secret Path being used in schools to educate children about a part of Canadian history that we’ve all been happy to ignore for a century, either willfully or out of genuine ignorance. Despite my own doubts about the directness of the lyrics, the context is everything: no one stumbles upon this record not knowing what it is. Maybe no one will ever put this on as background music, but children’s choirs are singing these songs. The art will endure. The message will resonate further than anything else Downie has ever written. Mission accomplished.

If cynics need further evidence, watch this short doc.

The chances:
You Want It Darker won a Juno, as well it should have. But Polaris? Not likely. Buffy Sainte-Marie notwithstanding, Polaris usually skews young, and is unlikely to give the equivalent of a posthumous lifetime achievement award, even to one of the greatest songwriters ever born on this soil. Naturally, the Cohen record is musically conservative. The guy was 82. Comparing it to Weaves or Lido Pimienta is, frankly, ridiculous—but that’s inherent in the Polaris mandate to break down all genre divisions. This is an album prize, plain and simple—and this is as cohesive a collection of songs as you’ll ever find, by a master of the form. By that measure, it deserves to win. It’s a great record; I voted for it and I’m glad it’s on the shortlist. But I don’t think it should win the Polaris.

Likewise with Downie. His record is nowhere near as strong as Cohen’s—few are. Again, even comparing these two poets is ridiculous, exposing the fallacies of all awards anywhere, anytime. Their presence on this shortlist must be humbling to everyone else on it. But, to paraphrase Downie’s vision of this country, Polaris should be the prize of the next 150 years, not the Canada of the past. And in a year fraught with discussion of cultural appropriation, it would be downright weird to weigh Secret Path over Halluci Nation. If for some reason Secret Path wins, you can be sure that Downie is going to turn around and give it directly to A Tribe Called Red. Coz he’s a helluva guy.

No matter what happens, I’m really looking forward to the winner’s speech this year.

The could’ve, should’ve beens:

Loscil – Monument Builders (Kranky)

The album: (reviewed Dec. 1, 2016)

Why Vancouver composer Scott Morgan, a.k.a. Loscil, has not been tapped for any Oscar-bait assignments is anyone’s guess. (He has, however, scored the 2006 Genie winner for Best Documentary: Scared Sacred.) He’s been creating fascinating minimalist ambient music for more than a decade, and his 11th album could well become a calling card. Inspired directly by Philip Glass’s stunning score for the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, as well as the photographs of devastated landscapes by Edward Burtynsky, Monument Builders is sparse, expansive and evocative. French horns and percussion permeate the occasionally pulsing synths and layered atmospherics; melodies and movements are glacial yet hardly obscured.

In these past few months, if not the past year, we’ve all had plenty of reasons to shut off the noise of the world and mourn the losses that pile up seemingly every week. In addition to everything else 2016 has handed us, between this record, Johan Johansson’s Arrival soundtrack and Colin Stetson’s reimagining of Gorecki’s “Sorrow” symphony, it’s also given us an antidote. 

Later thoughts: There are few ambient albums I go back and play somewhat regularly; this is one of them. Tense and meditative at the same time, Loscil’s music never fades into the background.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: Ambient music doesn’t make it on Polaris lists, even if it shares qualities with longtime favourites Godspeed You Black Emperor or Tim Hecker (oddly, Hecker’s latest didn’t make the cut last year; previous Polaris winners Godspeed has requested that nothing they do be considered for Polaris ever again). There have been experimental records shortlisted before, but nothing as minimal as this tends to cut through in the age of distraction.

Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid (Outside)

The album: (reviewed Sept. 22, 2016)

This Canadian is a star in her adopted nation of New Zealand, where she’s racked up plenty of country music awards and songwriting accolades. Don’t Be Afraid is only her second album to be released in her motherland, and we’d be fools to ignore this powerhouse voice any longer—a voice that could front an amplified band without the use of a microphone. 

Her last album, Dynamite!, was cut from the Patsy Cline mould, very much rooted in country music from the late ’50s, early ’60s. This time out the vibe is still decidedly old school, but Neilson gets bluesier and bolder, touching on torch songs and rockabilly and soul. Informed by the death of her beloved father—with whom she was in a family band when she was a kid—Don’t Be Afraid is considerably darker in tone, which gives her vocals even more of a chance to dig in deep. On the title track, she goes for full-out gospel-style projection over a slow blues, sounding more like Aretha Franklin that one would ever expect from this country belter. 

Later thoughts: Neilson is one of the most exhilarating vocalists I’ve ever seen in my life—and I’m not saying that just to be hyperbolic. But credit should also go to her ace band, including brother Jay on guitar—one of the few people who can conjure the ghost of the late Pops Staples.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: I missed Neilson’s last show in Toronto, but my lady and a friend went—and were apparently the youngest people in the audience by about 20 years. Hip baby boomers have got her number, but I’m not sure anyone under 35 gives a shit about roots music at all anymore, especially artists with such old-school chops as Neilson and her band. Okay, gramps out.

Tomorrow: Feist, Lisa LeBlanc

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