Listen to this track by beloved Canadian blues-rock-art-rock quintet seemingly unknown to the rest of the world, The Tragically Hip. It’s “New Orleans Is Sinking”, an early single off of their second album, 1989’s Up To Here. The song remains to be among their most popular tunes, and a staple on Canadian rock radio even today.
I always remember the story a friend’s sister told me. She was driving with her friends in upstate New York somewhere in the early nineties. In passing a marquee outside a low-rent roadside club that said Tonight: The Tragically Hip, they u-turned with squealing tires, and pulled up to the place in a cloud of dust. At the time in Canada, these guys were filling out stadiums. That to me has always been a telling indication of their success outside of Canada’s borders, which is to say not very widespread comparatively speaking. It certainly couldn’t have had much to do with the music.
This is song that touches on existential ideas, while avoiding being too earnest about it thanks to crunchy and interlocked rhythm and lead guitars, a loping Peter Gunn bassline, and singer Gord Downie’s weird, slightly disturbing delivery. What is the core ingredient to this song, and to the Hip’s early sound? I think it’s the way it straddles at least two approaches to delivering rock music to audiences.
The Hip blend a mix of art rock and post punk songwriting, with the sound of a working class bar band, albeit a very, very tight one. To me, this is the central tension in their music, accessible to those who seek pure riffage and groove, and to those who are looking for imagery and lyrical contrast that challenges the imagination. Maybe too, this is a specifically Canadian approach, which may be why reviews in US magazines and British ones have been so, so lazy when it comes to the Tragically Hip, writing them off as just another bluesy bar band or REM clone respectively.
To me, the hip are the closest band our country will ever get to the Stones. It’s that interlocked guitar dynamic they’ve got going, and references to country folk music on other tunes. Then there’s Downie’s aforementioned weird voice, as distinct in its way as Jagger’s, and employing some of the same obfuscating lyrical approaches that seem both joyous and nasty at the same time, ala Exile On Main St. Also, the groove they lay down on this song and on so many others is as dirty and artfully sloppy as anything the Glimmer Twins concocted around that time. At the same time, the Hip have a sound of their own that’s nothing to do the Stones or any other band, not really beholden to any one scene or musical label.
Getting back to this song, and some of the existential elements found in it, this song is dreamlike, seemingly recounting a blurry evening out, maybe in the titular city, with a hint of feeling displaced (hey north, you’re south, shut your big mouth …). Looking at the lines in the song, the sinking part of it has more to do with the narrator than it has to do with the city. This didn’t seem to be too relevant when the song ceased to be played on the radio during Hurricane Katrina, when the city of New Orleans that is built in part below sea level, was battered by the storm. In some ways banning this song was unfortunate, since it seems to me that the failure of the government to help the people there in good time could have used a shot of protest, with this song being as good an anthem as any even if it was written over sixteen years before. The hints of displacement in this made it pretty dark as it was, with a kind of existential dread brewing under the surface, which is a vital element in anything rooted in the blues, of course.
This is redeemed by the section that recounts a prayer of thanks to the Lord above, no less, who is then given a female pronoun (“she said ‘Gordie Baby, I know exactly what you mean”, she said …). That’s my favourite part of the song, with a wink in the listener’s direction as expectations are undercut. This section of the song is about being aware of one’s contentment in the moment, no matter where one is, and what forces one may be up against. Being traveling musicians, swimming in environments that are not one’s own, and feeling far from home, these kinds of moments are pretty helpful.
By now, The Tragically Hip are an institution in Canada, and still something of a cult band everywhere else. You can learn more about that at thehip.com.