Gordon Downie

Coke Machine Glow

(Wiener Art; 2001)

By Scott Reid | 5 March 2003

"What the hell is this? She said ‘it’s art, just fucking mirror it"

Makes sense that I should review the album that I stole this domain name from. Coke Machine Glow is the debut solo album from long-time Tragically Hip frontman Gordon Downie, a beautiful mixture of abstract spoken word (think of a jazzy "What’s He Building?"), laid-back pop, slow waltz, lo-fi rock, straightforward singer-songwriter and, uh, polka. Seriously. The strangest part about the album is that it works despite the fact that, on paper, it should be horrible. "Eccentric frontman of a rock and roll band doing polka, slow waltz and spoken word." But before you make a quip about how solo-album narcissism has reached a new low, the album begins and all doubts are quickly erased; the spoken word material is detailed and rich with imagery, while the polka shuffle of "Yer Possessed"…well, it’s one song, really. And it’s one of the catchiest of the bunch.

"And happy days of electrical smiles and loving evenings falling down in piles and not imagining a restlessness that could keep us apart/If I could sleep there’s a chance I could dream and reconjure all of these vivid scenes"

Released in conjunction with his book of poetry, many of these songs act as mere vessels to back up his magnificent rhetoric, but often work well enough to almost steal attention from the words. Bookends "Starpainters" and “Insomniacs of the World, Good Night,” along with "Nothing But Heartache in Your Social Life" and personal favorite "Mystery," account for the spoken word portion of the disc and add an appreciated variety to the album as a whole. Their arrangements shift focus to the words in a startling fashion, letting waves of sound and free-form instrumentation flow over his voice as he accentuates each word to full effect, bringing you into the images he has created and refusing to let you go until the instrumentation fades out and the next song begins. "Insomniacs" is especially effective in this regard; the wavering organ and sparse piano lines create an hypnotizing backdrop, dropping in and out with Downie’s half-whispered voice.

"Just make your friends while you’re still young, before you can’t see through anyone"

"Trick Rider," a duet with Julie Doiron, is the best of the straightforward folk/pop numbers, highlighting Downie’s lyrics and Doiron’s harmonies. Like the rest of the album ("Canada Geese" and polka excepted), it’s very unassuming and relaxing, incredibly inviting without relying on any conventional hooks to keep interest. For some, I’m sure, this could render the album monotonous. And yeah, some songs, like "Blackflies," do drag — especially in context with the two (much better) tracks that follow it: second single "Lofty Pines" and "Boy Bruised by Butterfly Chase," co-written Louie Perez. The net effect is is one of a seamless drawl, one not nearly as affecting as what precedes or follows it.

"‘C’mon it’s not like they keep it hid!’ It was the look in your eyes, you said, ‘No one’s going to hurt me like you did’"

The album may have been vastly ignored, even in his native Canada where his career was made in the Hip, but the degree of experimentation and change in direction predominantly displayed with Coke Machine Glow is remarkable for the singer of a band so many have written off as "Canadian bar-rock" years ago. Make no mistake, this is is no Chad Kroeger solo album; this is an inventive, sometimes pretentious folk-rock-poetry jam…well, I don’t want to say miracle, but again, think how bad this could’ve turned out. Somehow, some way, the initial shock of hearing Downie all but yodel does wear off, and Coke Machine Glow does reveal itself as the best album the man’s ever touched. It’s not his first great album, but it is one, and will remain as such for many years to come, laying in wait for those that will eventually stumble upon it.

"This working
from the inside out,
this stepping to the easel,
is gonna run you into results,
then there’s the materials:
to see a world beyond your shoes reflected in the polish
and see some images of truth beautifully demolished"