The Tragically Hip

In Between Evolution

(Capitol; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 29 June 2004

It's hard not to be skeptical of bands that claim to be "returning to their roots." More often than not it ends up being clever wording for an inevitable digression, either due to pressure from fans that have been impatiently waiting for more of the same, or just due to a lack of being able to successfully create something new with what they've got. Yet, when any band is together long enough to move past their prime and into other phases of their creative evolution, the announcement is bound to happen sooner or later. Or, in this case, exactly twenty years and eight albums.

Now, I'm sure that many of their fans welcomed the initial descriptions of IBE as a return to their early '90s, pre-Henhouse sound, if only because it might mean more "Locked in the Trunk of a Car" or "Cordelia" and less "A Beautiful Thing." And maybe that's what the band was going for, as the promise of a more upbeat Hip record, supported by a few better-than-average singles, could give them a shot at winning back a lot of the fans that had begun to waver after the release of Music @ Work. Of course, all of that ignores the fact that their best material of the last six or seven years hasn't been the bar-band rock at all, leaving at least some of us a little nervous about how the group would incorporate an old style with their current abilities/limitations as aging songwriters that, arguably, made the album of their career a good ten or so years ago.

So, is the band really hoping that In Between Evolution will accomplish for them what Phantom Power (1998) had after the divisive Trouble at the Henhouse had thrown a rather large cog into their fan-friendly Up To Here-thru-Day For Night run? Who knows, but by that measure, this is no Phantom Power, and, in any sense, certainly no Road Apples; in fact, even on a purely superficial level, IBE isn't any more upbeat or "raw" -- outside of the fact that some of it was recorded live off-the-floor without overdubs -- than any of their post-Day for Night material, no doubt partially due to Adam Kasper's recognizable modern rock production, which actually doesn't differ greatly from Mark Vreeken's work on M@W. Not that surprisingly, neither does the songwriting; though we are given a few obvious throwbacks, the core of this album still sounds like a mixture of Music @ Work and In Violet Light.

But all of this does little to discuss whether or not the new material is worth a shit or not, no matter the producer or recording style behind it. If you've heard "Vaccination Scar," you already know all that is great and disappointing about IBE; Downie's predictable thick lyrics are still a saving grace, but the music veers into needlessly repetitive territory as the song's verse and chorus progression differing only slightly. Like much of the record, we're still at least given something to make due with -- in this case, it's Rob Baker's slide guitar work that runs throughout the song, adding an element to the track that's as memorable and catchy as the vocal hook.

Despite being made to believe that most of the album might follow in such a mould, very little actually does. "The Heart of the Melt" is the closest relative of "Scar," and perhaps the closest the record comes to their pre-Day For Night frat-rock material. But without a hook or exceptional lyrics, the song ultimately fails to take off, much like the Stones influenced "One Night in Copenhagen."

"As Makeshift As We Are" avoids such superfluity with one of their best sing-along choruses since "Poets," even if the verses lack the same kind of punch and the lead guitar work sounds by-the-numbers. Much the same can be said for "Summer's Killing Us" and "Heaven Is A Better Place Today," both of which make up for their flaws -- including some of Downie's most frustrating lyrics to date -- with at least a competent hook, whether it be a bridge that completely outdoes the rest of the track ("Summer") or the kind of excellent verse progression that wouldn't sound out of place on the next Interpol record ("Heaven"). Though both will very likely take a handful of listens to warm up to -- especially "Summer," which finds Gord's voice stretching and grasping for most notes, making its choice as an American single all the more bewildering.

But the heart of IBE lies in its mid-tempo material, which still manages to constitute over half of the record. The spectacular "Gus: The Polar Bear From Central Park," one of the few instances when the record actually recalls the effortless feel of Road Apples, has Gord returning to his usual off-kilter storytelling, not to mention the kind of prolonged outro soloing they haven't explored nearly enough since "Nautical Disaster;" the overtly political "You're Everywhere" ("Democracy is how we all learn to sleep/ With ourselves/ Drawing to ourselves/ Everything we can carry") is perhaps the record's best overall, more than making up for its complacent verses with a soaring chorus, calming those that might have been worried about Downie after hearing "Summer;" "It Can't Be Nashville Every Night" is one of the few on the record to match a parasitic verse with an even better chorus, cemented by a great vocal delivery.

"Mean Streak" and "Are We Family" bookend the record's two most underwhelming tracks with the kind of atmospherically driven art-rock that had dominated Henhouse and M@W. The former's dissection of xenophobia ("It's the way the dust clings to the air/ After a stranger's been there") is backed by a melody no less repetitive than "Vaccination Scar," but again, the lead guitar work -- instantly recalling Day for Night -- helps to break the monotony of the structure. "Family," on the other hand, aesthetically falls much more in line with "Flamenco" and "It's a Good Life" -- right down to the bold reliance on lyrical refrains and beautiful complimentary guitar lines in place of a melodramatic chorus or predictable climax.

It's been clear for quite some time that the group is more interested in writing and releasing what comes natural to them at the minute they're writing or recording it, and we'd have to be awfully naive to think that what comes naturally now is what came naturally in 1992 -- and, as such, this is neither a regression nor a real push forward for the band. But for five guys that have spent nearly two decades without a drastic departure or much of a change in the way they approach their music, In Between Evolution is a surprisingly solid 9th record. That it doesn't follow through on the promise of returning to a previous era to a much larger degree says far less about the group failing to follow through than reminding us that they still, even this far into their career, have no reason to.