The Tragically Hip
Now for Plan A
By David M. Goldstein | 6 December 2012
Some albums age well. You know the type, initially underappreciated records that only reveal the goods after repeated listens; the old “time has been kind to ‘x’ album” cliché that I fully admit to overusing. The Tragically Hip’s We Are the Same (2009) is not one of these. Blame it on under-developed songwriting, or blame it on the embarrassingly heavy hand of Bob Rock (eh, mostly Bob Rock), but something went horribly awry on the Hip’s eleventh studio album, and given the utter dearth of its songs in recent setlists, the band seems to have acknowledged this. None of the hirsute dudes in Toronto Maple Leafs jerseys at their shows are ever going to yell out for the sorry likes of “Queen of the Furrows” or “Now the Struggle Has a Name.”
But the Glow believes in mulligans, especially when the frontman of the band in question is largely responsible for our moniker. R.E.M. recovered from Around the Sun (2004), so let’s give the Hip the benefit of the doubt. Gordon Downie’s excellent 2010 solo album The Grand Bounce helped to regain much of the good will his band squandered with We Are the Same, and now the comeback of sorts continues. The appropriately named Now For Plan A is the strongest Tragically Hip album since In Violet Light (2002), a warm, unhurried affair that proves these guys can still deliver the goods when paired with a producer who leaves them the fuck alone.
Yet, when it was revealed the Hip would be working with Canuck radio-rock Svengali Gavin Brown, one could feel the breeze from the collective head-shaking: “Awesome! They somehow managed to find the one producer lamer than Bob Rock!” The credits on the man’s Wikipedia page read like a who’s who of Canadian rock crimes: Billy Talent, the Tea Party, and (shudder) Three Days Grace. So it’s a bit surprising that Brown gives the Hip one of their finest production jobs in recent memory. He never loses sight of the fact that they’re at heart a basic two-guitar rock band, albeit one with a particularly manic vocalist. There’re a few questionable overdubs—a programmed drum loop here, some additional keyboard atmosphere there—but Brown essentially captures the band how they sound onstage, with just the right amount of grit, the production never detracting from the quality of the songs—which was never a given in the Bob Rock era.
As for the songwriting within, even CMG’s Conrad Amenta was surprised by how much he enjoyed Now For Plan A, given his observation that “they should have run out of chord progressions by now.” Of course, having a seemingly ageless Gordon Downie as your frontman goes a long way towards keeping otherwise conventional bar rock interesting: “Streets Ahead” is easily the greatest song ever about a sled dog team and “Goodnight Attawapiskat” follows in the vein of Hip classics like “Fifty Mission Cap” and “Wheat Kings” with Downie honing in on a distinctly Canadian subject that only his countryfolk would be expected to understand without a Google search (in this case, an aboriginal settlement in Northern Ontario). His band doesn’t quite rev it up like they used to; save cheap seats wailer “Streets Ahead” and the vintage Hip sound of “At Transformation,” they come off a touch more sedate and a little warmer, settling into an almost adult-contemporary sound they attempted to capture on their last album but failed miserably to do so. This approach is especially evident in Plan A’s all mid-tempo second half, which sonically has far more in common with The Grand Bounce than a proper Hip album. Downie also gets to duet twice with fellow Ontario-native Sarah Harmer, on recent single “The Lookahead” and the title track. The latter is a highlight: a plaintive, reverb-heavy ballad that features much tasteful restraint on both the part of the band and Gavin Brown. Rest assured Bob Rock would have murdered it with a string section and gospel choir.
The chorus hooks remain sturdy as ever, and if you squint, some of the songs appear to comprise a vague story arc tracing the courtship and dissolution of a doomed couple. Though, per usual, only Downie knows exactly what he’s yammering on about. While I never exactly lost faith in the Tragically Hip, they are getting on in years, and it’s refreshing to see a band so willing to acknowledge recent mistakes. Now For Plan A fixes virtually everything that resulted in We Are the Same being the poorest full length of their career (really, it isn’t close), while somehow continuing to put fresh spins on a distinctly Canadian brand of arena rock that really had no business surviving Jean Chretien’s second term. In a year in which it is very possible that the Maple Leafs may never suit up (Gary Bettman is a worthless human being), at the very least the Hip fanboys should be grateful for this.