Gordon Downie

Battle of the Nudes

(Wiener Art/Zoe; 2003)

By Scott Reid | 30 April 2003

Gordon Downie is the truest form of poet at heart, the kind obsessed with the power of an absurd turn of phrase bringing intense new light to a banal situation or, perhaps more accurately, the kind that relentlessly spends their life filtering their unique view of the world into small fragments of revelatory imagination.

Even as the lead singer of stubbornly Canadian rock group the Tragically Hip, Downie’s abstract lyrical concepts and enigmatic stage presence (which sometimes fell more in line with that annoying friend that discovers the secret to life on acid and proceeds to inform everyone else in the room in excruciatingly mangled detail) continued to separate the band from their perceived bar-rock image. In the middle of their more familiar songs he’d throw out some of his most crass improvised lines that continually seemed far too genuine to be disregarded as a cocaine-fueled philosopher taking advantage of the microphone and an attentive, albeit ambivalent, audience.

When his debut solo album was released in 2001 (coinciding with the release of his first book of poetry, both titled Coke Machine Glow — gee, that sounds familiar), Downie made it quite clear that his musical vision spread many miles away from Tragically Hip’s collaborative efforts. An aberrant mixture of spoken word, free jazz, lo-fi rock, morose balladry and even a lax polka number, it came as a shocking 180 from what anyone had expected from the man who led the most popular Can-rock act of the ’90s.

Predictably, most staunch fans of the Tragically Hip renounced it as utter garbage, a pure exercise in narcissism that was, for the most part, unlistenable. The album, regardless of harsh fan criticism, ultimately works because of its remarkable inventiveness and restraint, allowing the adapted poetry to fuel the intuitively constructed backing tracks, at one point even giving its own response to the reaction Downie knew it would receive; “What the hell is this,” he sings, “You said, ‘it’s art, just fucking mirror it.” It becomes fairly clear early on that he knew most people wouldn’t “get it,” but doesn’t give a fuck. His confidence is as charming as it is arrogant.

Now, just two years later, off the heels of yet another Tragically Hip record (the excellent In Violet Light), he quickly recorded and released _Battle of the Nudes_—a surprisingly accessible effort that puts aside the desolate feel of his debut and opts instead for a less alienating route that nevertheless remains true to Downie’s poetic ardor and penchant for disregarding musical continuity.

The album, in its brief 37 minutes, still manages to cover Neil Young-influenced balladry (“Into the Night”), abrasive rock (“Figment,” “11th Fret” and the closest he’s come to penning a typical Hip song, “Christmastime in Toronto”), free-form spoken word (“Who by Wrote” and sections of the ingenious “Willow Logic”), bouncy chamber pop (the album’s first single, “Pascal’s Submarine”) and pastoral mood pieces (the gorgeous “Steeplechase,” which also features the obligatory Canadian culture reference with the lengthy Hockey Night in Canada snippet at the end). Perhaps the biggest surprise on the album, however, is the tongue-in-cheek charge of “We’re Hardcore,” which manages to breathe a refreshing sense of humor into the record—especially welcome after the sparse piano ballad and clever ode to the subjective devastation of divorce, “More Me Less You.”

Much like the musical turns prevalent throughout the record, lyrical continuity is also arrogantly ignored—effortlessly switching from the poetic sincerity of “We’re close to the rail, never more like a candle, in breezes full and fragrant, we begin our estrangement” to the mocking sneer of “We’re not hobbyists or dabblers anymore/ We’re hardcore! Hardcore! We’re hardcore!” Downie has always been able to blur the lines between poignancy and absurdity with remarkable skill, and Battle of the Nudes manages the two as well as any work he’s put forth yet.

As a collective work, it may not be as wonderfully obtuse and inventive as his debut, but it remains an impressive collection of autonomous songwriting from one of the most unpredictable musicians habitually ignored on the world stage. While Battle of the Nudes certainly won’t change your life, it does offer—like the best of any art—the power to let you view it in a refreshingly unique way. His obstinate refusal to cease searching for clever ways of presenting even the most clichéd of sentiments offers hope that his art will, unlike most artists twenty years in the business, “still be surprisingly put.”