Monday, November 26, 2018

The Al Purdy Songbook

The Al Purdy Songbook – Various Artists (Borealis)

“Though poets die, a lullaby still whispers faintly in the room,” sings Sarah Harmer on a song she adapted from an Al Purdy poem for this project.

Those words were certainly true in 2016, when we lost both Leonard Cohen and Gord Downie to the dead poets society. But at the same time, the work of another great Canadian poet, who died in 2000, was echoing with a new resonance, thanks to the 2015 film Al Purdy Was Here, the directorial debut from former Maclean’s film critic Brian D. Johnson.

That film was a triumph on several levels: as vital Canadian cultural history, as a visually gorgeous film (shot by Nicholas de Pencier, who collaborates with Jennifer Baichwal on films like Long Time Running, Watermark and the new Anthropocene), as a documentary with a surprising twist, and, finally, as a catalyst for some of this country’s greatest musicians to engage with Purdy’s work. Johnson had always intended music to be a huge part of his film, and for a variety of reasons it took three years for this soundtrack of sorts to come to fruition. But it’s finally here, and it’s fabulous. (It also comes packaged with a DVD/Blu-Ray of the film.)

It opens with Bruce Cockburn, whom Johnson coaxed out of semi-retirement to write and record “3 Al Purdys”—which in turn became an anchor track on Cockburn’s most recent album, Bone to Bone. It also features one of the last things Leonard Cohen ever recorded: a recitation of “Necropsy of Love.” The parade of legends doesn’t stop there: Margaret Atwood recites “Wilderness Gothic,” Greg Keelor adapts Purdy’s poem “Woman” into “Unprovable” (“As unprovable as the sun on the other side of the world”). Gord Downie appears not once, but twice: with his highly underrated 2010 song “The East Wind,” which lifts lightly from Purdy, and a recitation of “At the Quinte Hotel,” which is a poem that “a sensitive man” such as Downie was born to read: it’s about bar fights in century-old hotels—something the Tragically Hip are more than familiar with—and about how poetry will buy you neither beer nor respect. Downie also does a striking Purdy impression at one point in the poem.

The best track here, however, goes to Downie disciple and friend Sarah Harmer, whose “Just Get Here” is not only perhaps the best melody she’s written in almost 20 years, but it summarizes the spirit of Purdy’s A-frame in Ameliasburg, Ontario, in Prince Edward County, which functioned as a gathering place for generations of Canadian poets—and continues to do so, having been restored for artist residencies. (A fundraising campaign to make that possible was the catalyst for Johnson’s interest in making this film.) On top of all that, her vocal and piano performance is devastating. While Harmer fans continue to hold out for new material (which is actually coming, though long delayed), this alone compensates for the eight-year wait.


Also appearing: Doug Paisley, Snowblink, Jason Collett, Felicity Williams, and Bidiniband—Dave Bidini, of course, like Downie, an enormous Purdy fan, who sampled Purdy’s voice on a 1994 Rheostatics song. If there’s any complaint with the choice of contributors, it’s that they all hail from an easy driving distance to Al’s A-frame; Purdy’s influence was felt far and wide across the Great White North, not just Ontario.

Tribute albums to musicians are often a hit-and-miss affair; this tribute to a poet, however, in which musicians were free to end the original text to their own uses, works brilliantly. Whether or not the name Al Purdy means anything to you: see the film, listen to the music, and, by all means, go back to the original texts. And say the names. (Nov. 9)

The album is being launched Tuesday, Nov. 26 at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto, at 7.30 p.m.

Stream: “Just Get Here” by Sarah Harmer, “Transient” by Doug Paisley, “At the Quinte Hotel” by Gord Downie

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