Gord Downie turns his swan song, Introduce Yerself, into a series of love letters
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
It’s hard not to get lost in the world this album creates.
With just the sparse backing of acoustic guitars, minimal drums and some pianos here and there, Gord Downie took the ticking time he had left in this world to write and record the songs that now live on as Introduce Yerself, a record that sees the Tragically Hip leader running through the stolen moments and memories of life and recasting them as love letters to friends and family.
The sound is so engaging and so immediate. Reportedly, many of the songs are first takes that Downie put to tape earlier in 2017, and they’re intended to specific figures in his life. They’re goodbyes and laughs and memories that needed to be painted and preserved for his own purposes. But in doing that, he’s created a sketch of his own life that feels warm and confessional in a way I’m not sure I’ve heard before.
I can’t speak for the origin of all these songs, or their intended subjects. But in those songs, like “You Are The Bird,” that intimacy is still so strong. It’s the way the piano frames his words, and the way he relays this story of this nickname being passed down to its recipient. It’s the sound of a man who’s free of all inhibitions yet is still graceful enough to be thoughtful and poetic that makes this such an engaging album.
Within its stripped-down setting and conversational pieces, it’s so immediate and real. The conversations with his brother on “You Me And The B’s” that’s superficially set around the Boston Bruins — oh, to have been a fly on their wall after the Joe Thornton trade — that inevitably get around to the greater and deeper troubles of life — “conversations serious as night,” as Downie calls them. He sends a tribute to his mates in the Tragically Hip in “Love Over Money,” recalling nights where, “we played to no one, and no one plus one.”
Over the sounds of dueling keyboards and a guitar strumming, he goes through the unspoken beats of a relationship on “Thinking About Us.” He channels another distant character into Lake Ontario in “The Lake.” Throughout Introduce Yerself, he flashes through these moments from his life not with the mathematical diligence of an autobiography, but instead through those moments and scenes that burn into our memories. It’s a dance or a song or a tree, the way the sky looked or the way the sun and snow felt that particular day. It’s the way our memories actually work. It’s not an orderly index. It’s a flashing of synapses, some of which mean so much more than others.
It’s all touching, and as the tracks repeat they become ingrained and somehow more important. The most poignant might be in the title track, where Downie recalls his habit later in life of writing important memos and hints on his hand to help him keep track of names. But more than the name of his driver, it’s a message to a friend and the shared moments those scribbled notes created. It’s about his gratitude for the journey he’s undertaken, and all the people he feels indebted to, and the personal, vulnerable moments shared in between.
So he pokes his friend, winks and shares the little inside joke and subtle “thank you” that he feels he forever owes all these people:
“So when I see you I’ll show you my hand
You’ll always see the arrow and underneath it, sayin’:
Thank you for your help.”
I can’t imagine what this must have been like. For whatever drama I’ve had to personally deal with and however poorly I’ve dealt with it, nothing in my life has approached this level of gravity. To take the time remaining to paint these small, shared moments and turn them into art — into songs that aren’t meant to bombard airwaves or commercials — is heroic. They’re love letters to important people first, and they’re little bits of comfort to the rest of us. They’re glaringly specific yet utterly charming and translatable.
Ultimately, it’s the sound of a man who’s come to peace with his circumstance, and in turn, uses his gifts to create one more line of connection. I’m sure recording it helped him cope with the hand he was dealt. I’m more sure of the fact that this album will bring even more comfort to listeners as the years go on.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org