There has been an unprecedented outpouring of love and support for the man who many see as one of the greatest artists the country has ever produced in the months since Gord Downie’s announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Much of the praise has been focused on Downie’s work as frontman for The Tragically Hip — which makes perfect sense considering how much the band has meant to multiple generations of Canadians — but we think it’s also important to take a look back at some of the best songs from Gord’s relatively under-the-radar (and also extremely brilliant) solo career.
We aren’t going to go as far as saying this is a definitive list of his best solo songs, since each of his 4 terrific LPs deserve to be listened to and enjoyed in their entirety, but consider this our primer to introduce the side of Downie’s legendary career that has gone criminally underlooked.
The East Wind
It doesn’t go around you / It goes through you
A brilliant opening track that resonates with anyone from Eastern Canada who has ever been paralyzed by a bone-chillingly cold winter breeze, whether it’s coming off of Lake Ontario, the St Lawrence River, the Atlantic ocean, or anywhere else, really. Remember that the propulsive crescendo of “The East Wind” should be used along with weather-appropriate gear to raise the heart rate and blood temperature, rendering any listener impervious to weather-related discomfort (within reason).
Or it could’ve been the doggedness that caused the loss in the first place, I guess
Forget about the best Gord Downie song. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, “Chancellor” very well might be the most perfect song ever written. There isn’t a better example of Downie’s ear for inventive, meandering melodies, nor his wit, sense of humour and boundless imagination. What is “Chancellor” actually about? It doesn’t matter. Like all great art, it’s about whatever you want it to be.
Us middle-aged men just completing / The finishing touches on a dope deal / It’s agreed we get a small piece / In the middle of a cornfield
Downie has often been compared to Bruce Springsteen, as each artist has built a legendary career out of using music to tell stories about characters just like the ones in “Canada Geese” – working class dudes doing whatever they can to make a living, even if they wind up on the wrong side of the law.
It was the look in your eyes / You said “No one’s going to hurt me like / “You did”
Close your eyes and throw on “Yer Possessed” at the right time of night, maybe after a drink or two, and it really feels like one of Canada’s most celebrated artists has invited you into his garage/basement, where he and a few wildly talented friends are jamming out a tune using whatever instruments that happened to be lying around.
Christmastime in Toronto
So this is your number, well, I just called to say hello
I was blurting, you were blurting, we were talking in morse code
Downie’s second, more garage-influenced album Battle of the Nudes is an interesting counterpoint to Coke Machine Glow’s more minimal approach, but it’s equally gem-filled. The lyrics are classic Downie – using inventive metaphor to perfectly describe an emotionally difficult situation that any listener can identify with.
Stumbled into sleep’s ravine / Into a dream of Pascal’s submarine / If you can remain quiet and still / You might escape life’s fill / Of misery
A consistent device in Gord’s songwriting is the contrast between musical and lyrical content, taking wonderful pop melodies and mixing them with melancholic lyrics like some kind of mad chemist, mixing different feelings together to create brand new emotions that we have no name for. “Pascal’s Submarine” is a great example of this, a delicate balancing act of upbeat singalong that upon deeper inspection is really a quite existentially bleak description of a desperate need to escape the everyday anguish of reality.
Sitting here at the Horton’s / So you know this is important
Has a more Canadian lyric ever been written? For Gord can casually drop this objectively hilarious line into such a soul-wrenching ballad, it almost feels like he’s taunting the rest of us mortals with his complete and utter mastery of his craft. Like Gretzky scoring 5 goals to reach the 50 goal milestone in 39 games, he makes the profoundly difficult look impossibly easy.
The Dance and its Disappearance
In the air a taste of mint / And night’s been coming ever since
The Dance and its Disappearance is an absolutely perfect song to play (at a reasonable volume) while driving West through Ontario, a few hours past Toronto when the entire country seems to stretch before you and you begin to realize how vast it all is. As the sun begins to dip down towards the horizon, enveloping you with “orangey glows and Sudbury yellows,” sing along to the triumphant “Oohs” following the chorus, and no matter what else is happening in your life, it will all feel perfect at that exact moment.
I got my antlers in the thicket / Of a dream where you’re gone
Another highlight of Downie’s last album with backing band The Country of Miracles, Gone is a fairly simple pop song tucked away around The Grand Bounce’s midpoint, and is probably better than the entire catalogues of 99% of bands that have ever existed.
The Hard Canadian
Whether he’s just mean or wilfully dense / He says, “From life nothing; to death nothing”
While it’s true that Gord’s music treaded heavily on familiar tropes about Canada, he was equally capable of subverting them. The Hard Canadian reminds us, in even more specific terms than many of his other songs that deal with the same type of character – that we’re not all bright-eyed, incessantly-smiling serial apologisers, we’re also just as capable of being stoic, emotionally abusive assholes as the citizens of any other country.
The Conquering Sun
Night, the quickening thrill / Soon I will be with her / She is more than a conqueror
As sensitive as Gord was capable of being, he never, ever forgot how to rock. And not in the kind-of-sad way that most middle-aged men attempt to rock, but the real, triumphant, fist-pumping kind of rock. The Conquering Sun is one of the real gems from Gord’s only album with backing band The Sadies, which overall represented more of a stripped-down, back-to-basics rock band approach to songwriting. Incredible that even with so many miles on his artistic odometer, he was still able to produce records as vital-sounding as this.
2016 has been a particularly tough year when it comes to losing brilliant artists, which made the news about Downie all the more devastating for the millions of lives he’s touched over the decades.
It’s a testament to Downie’s enduring and all-encompassing goodness that the last few months have felt more like a triumphant celebration than a funeral dirge, culminating in the Hip’s already-legendary final performance in their hometown of Kingston. Though it served for many as a beautiful, collective goodbye to Gord, it’s still very hard to accept that we might not be seeing him again. And as your sanctimonious Facebook friend from high school is so fond of pointing out from the vantage point of his or her towering, skyscraper-sized horse, there are terrible tragedies happening all over the world on a daily basis, so should we really care about this one person?
Of course we should, and you should cease being friends with anyone who suggests otherwise. Though we may feel a profound sense of loss when great artists depart our mortal plane, it’s important to always keep in mind that because of the magic of music, the truly brilliant are able to transcend mortality. So, don’t be sad. Gord Downie isn’t going anywhere. Gord Downie will live forever.