This is one post in a series. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.
In 2005, The Tragically Hip released their best selling cd of all time, Yer Favourites. This 2-CD set was a collection of live performances, re-mixes and studio versions of their most popular songs to date. It says something about the success of The Hip up to that point that they had enough legitimate hit material to warrant a double CD. But, they did. Fans, like me, ate it up. Listening to Yer Favourites is like being at every Hip concert that they played. As fans, we like to hear the songs that we like and this collection tied the career of The Tragically Hip up neatly with a bow. It was every song that made The Hip seem like The Hip. It was a complete a collection of the songs that we really wanted to see them play live when we saw them in arenas or at festivals. Truth be told, if the members of The Hip had decided to stop creating new material and spent the rest of their career touring and simply playing their hits, no one would have minded.
But, Gord Downie and the rest of the members of the band were never ones to sit on their laurels. Coasting, in an artistic sense, went against the grain of who they saw themselves as artists. So, in 2006, they released an album of completely new material called World Container. Coming, as it did, on the heels of the wildly popular, Yer Favourites, many fans were not prepared to embrace this new material. In fact, many fans thought that The Hip had “sold out” because many of these songs sounded different. There was more instrumentation featured. Many of the songs had a Pop flavour. This wasn’t our Hip music. What actually had happened?
By the time World Container had been released, the members of The Tragically Hip had been together for almost twenty years as a band. They were no longer the young rockers touring the world, seeing the sights, meeting so many influential people. Life has a way of changing you over time, if you are open to the lessons it has to teach. Because The Hip viewed their world through a poet’s eye, each member of the band had grown as individual human beings and their lives had evolved. They weren’t young, single men anyone. Most were married by this point. Some were fathers now, too. I know that my outlook on Life changed as I grew from a child at home, to a young man out in the world for the first time, to a married man, to a father, to a retiree, which is where I stand now. I thought I knew a lot back in my twenties but, looking back from where I stand today, I didn’t know as much as I thought. For The Hip, the release of Yer Favourites was their way of saying that the fun times would always remain special but, that those days were over now. The release of World Container was the band announcing that it was time to grow up.
Most Hip fans did not want to grow up. The news that new music was being released meant that the band was moving on. While fans were certainly invited to continue the journey, many greeted the release of World Container with skepticism. One of the big reasons for that was that this album was being produced by a legendary figure in the Canadian music industry, Bob Rock. Mr. Rock first came to the attention of Canadian music fans as a member of a band called The Payolas. The Payolas featured singer, Paul Hyde and guitarist, Bob Rock. They had several hits, the biggest of which was called, Eyes of a Stranger. The video for that song can be viewed here. It is instructive to listen to this song because it is not a straight-ahead rock tune. It infuses elements of ska and reggae into the rock song format that was so prevalent at the time. The Payolas were a breath of fresh air that blew across Canada’s music scene in the 1980s. However, like many bands, longevity was not to be their calling card. Paul Hyde and Bob Rock soon went their separate ways. For Rock, that meant beginning a career as a producer. He gained lots of fame by sitting behind the control panel for some of the biggest selling albums of all time. Most notably, it was Bob Rock who produced Metallica’s Black Album. Prior to that album, Metallica had been, primarily, a speed metal, hardcore band. But, under Rock’s supervision, Metallica released songs that became big hits with non-metal fans. Songs such as Enter Sandman and Nothing Else Matters are terrific rock songs. Bob Rock helped make Metallica more accessible to a broader swath of the music-buying public. This did wonders for the financial success of Metallica and those involved in the business of promoting their music. But, to the original Metallica fans, the release of the Black Album was the signal that Metallica had officially sold out. That money seemed to matter more than artistry hit a nerve, even with Metalheads. Metallica’s fans directed their venom at Bob Rock, accusing him of ruining their favourite band. If those accusations hurt, Bob Rock didn’t show it.
(*THM) Bob Rock was introduced to The Tragically Hip by Canadian music promoter, Bruce Allen. Allen was one of the biggest names in Canadian music in the 80s and 90s. But, the scuttlebutt was that Allen didn’t think much of The Tragically Hip’s music. In fact, it is said that he felt they were over-rated and given far more credit than they deserved. In facilitating the connection between Bob Rock and The Tragically Hip, Allen may have been trying to perform a service that he felt was necessary for the band. Instead of singing about Jacques Cartier and small towns like Bobcaygeon, perhaps Bob Rock could bring them more out into the mainstream of Canada’s rock scene. Regardless of his motivation, Allen set in motion a collaboration that resulted in the musical release of World Container.
Not surprisingly, World Container was met with mixed emotions from fans and critics, alike. This did not sound like Road Apples or Fully Completely at all. It sounded more Popish, for sure. But, it, also, heralded a new focus from Downie on writing songs that better reflected the current states of their collective lives. The songs on World Container and those that followed on other albums, were far more personal; often dealing with marriage, children, health, death, the state of the environment…in other words, things that grown-ups tend to be thinking about. The first song on World Container is called Yer Not the Ocean. In short, this song is about looking back at your youth and realizing that many of the things you thought were significant and weighty, actually, were nothing of the sort at all compared to what awaits in the future. When I listen to this song, I can almost envision the conversations that went on in studio prior to recording it. I can imagine Gord Downie telling Bob Rock that the band wanted to explore weightier themes in their songs going forward and Rock replying that this was fine but, first, the band was going to have to explain this to their fanbase. Yer Not the Ocean is that explanation.
Yer Not the Ocean opens with the following lines:
Again I’m talking to the lake, I’m standing on the rocks
You’re not the ocean, I’m better to watch
Britney Invisible or The Stranger In Myself
Than a wall of water just hitting the shelf
“Britney invisible” is a nautical reference that refers to sailors watching the sea with interest, waiting for something to happen, like the wind to pick up and a storm to come in. “The Stranger in Myself” refers to a book about a German soldier in WWII. Willy Peter Reese was in his late teens when he found himself at the Russian Front. He was a Nazi but, he had a poetic side and, as a result, he kept a diary of what he saw and felt. His diary was found upon his death in battle. In his poems, Reese often commented upon the inhumanity of war and of the nobility of a life dedicated to something larger than himself, in this case, the Fatherland. Many who have read this book have commented that Reese sure had a lot to say about Life when, in reality, he knew so little about all that it had to offer. I can certainly remember being 20 years old and thinking I had all of the answers, too.
When Gord Downie references A Stranger in Myself or “Britney invisible”, he is telling his fans that what the band had talked about in their music before…..on Yer Favourites….was important but that the band knows so much more about Life now and has so much more to say. Of course, Gord says that in his own poetic way but, none the less, World Container was the start of, what has come to be known as, the second half of The Hip’s career. Some fans stopped their Tragically Hip journey with the hits on Yer Favourites. But, thanks to the influence of Bob Rock, as well as, an outlook dedicated to more mature issues by the band, I find much of the material from the second half of their career to be very interesting. I love the hits, don’t get me wrong but, I enjoy their “new” stuff, just as much. I hope that you will think so, too.
The video for Yer Not the Ocean can be found here.
Thanks, as always, for reading my words. I hope that you enjoyed this post. If you wish to comment on anything I have said or to talk about the quality of Yer Not the Ocean or to pass on any great lessons in life that you have learned along the way, please feel free to do so in the comment box below. Thanks to Bob Rock, The Tragically hip and to The Hip Museum for the content of this post.
Bye for now.