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10 Underrated Tragically Hip Tracks with Surprisingly Deep Themes
When Gord Downie tragically passed away in 2017 he left behind a massive legacy of great music. The Tragically Hip were a big part of the fabric of Canada and losing them felt like losing a piece of who we are as a country. Lately, I’ve been digging through their catalogue and realizing just how much of their music dealt with themes of mental illness and the accompanying challenges that come with that. Let’s dig into a few of those songs. My interpretations might not be perfect, but I’ll try my best. There will probably be some deeper cuts on here, so I low-key hope you discover some of The Hip’s more underrated not-so-radio-friendly material through this retrospective as well, especially from the second half of their career, which often gets overlooked by fans, but is also where Downie did some of his best songwriting
"The Depression Suite" (from We Are The Same)
Clocking in at just under 10 minutes, The Depression Suite is the single longest and one of the most ambitious songs The Tragically Hip ever recorded. It seems a bit obvious to just say it’s about Depression. The Depression Suite actually seems to switch narrators multiple times and, like most of the Hip’s ouvre, contains various cryptic proper nouns, in this case Chicago, New Orleans and Athabasca. It’s clear that the main protagonist of "The Depression Suite" is struggling with one of the more common symptoms of depression, the inability to leave one’s bed. They bury their head under a pillow, only to discover “a whole other world of sound”, including that of what seems to be a friend or loved one asking “Are you going through something? Because I am too.” Sometimes it’s hard to reach out to a friend when you’re going through something similar, but it’s important to know that you can still help and support each other through your collective struggle. Gord is breaking down the toxic idea that people who are hurting should be kept apart in order to avoid hurting each other. It’s only by coming together that we can talk about our problems and find strength.
"It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken" (from In Violet Light)
The devastating effect of the three guitar attack that provides the driving force behind what is, in my opinion, the best song from the otherwise forgettable In Violet Light album, is enough to make It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken worth listening to. The cryptic lyrics, as far as I can tell, are about discovering yourself among adversity. “For a good life we just might have to weaken and find somewhere to go,” Downie declares by the songs end, basically saying that it’s ok to “weaken” sometimes; to let go of the tough facade you’re holding onto and find a place where people accept you for who you are.
"Tired as Fuck" (from Man Machine Poem)
Despite the profanity, it’s hard to get more relatable than this song from The Hip’s final album. I think we’ve all been “tired as fuck” before. I don’t know the full story behind the song, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that it probably came from a long bout of recording and touring. Gord Downie and his bandmates were known for their extreme work ethic and this song seems to be born out of a dichotomy between exhaustion and the desire to persevere. “I wanna stop so much, I almost don’t wanna stop,” Downie howls in the second verse. For those struggling with mental illnesses like Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder and Depression, insomnia, the feeling of exhaustion, coupled with an inability to sleep is all too familiar.
"Pretend" (from World Container)
“If I asked you a question, are you gonna lie to me?” “Is that your question? Cuz that one is easy.” begins this jazzy slow-burn from 2006’s World Container, in classic Gord Downie ironic prose, repeating a line from the song "The Kids Don’t Get It" one track prior. Pretend is, quite obviously, about pretending to be someone you’re not. Ultimately it’s a song about denial and hiding behind a mask because it’s easier than being true to who you really are. It’s also a song about how willingly people lie to each other to cover their true feelings. This song is a bit of a cautionary tale however, about a relationship that’s breaking apart because of all the lies involved. Don’t let yourself fall into the same trap.
"We Want to Be It" (from Now For Plan A)
In 2012, while touring, Downie discovered that his wife had breast cancer and much of the (highly underrated) Now For Plan A album is about Gord coming to terms with the diagnosis and finding ways to be there for his wife without diminishing her womanhood through his over-eagerness to help. Many of the songs from the Hip’s penultimate album are devastating and beautiful, but "We Want to Be It" always ring the most true for me. The lyrics interplay between a monotonous “drip drip drip”, presumably from a chemo-therapy IV, and Gord’s memories of catching his wife’s attention for the first time as a young, unconfident man. It’s a beautiful trip down memory lane and a tale of unconditional love at the same time, made even more tragic after Gord’s own cancer diagnosis and subsequent passing a few years later.
"Toronto #4" (from Music@Work)
This is a short, almost disposable track sitting between the heavy slow-burn of Sharks and the fast-paced intensity of Wild Mountain Honey on Music@Work’s somewhat random back-half , but before you’re tempted to skip it, give the lyrics a read. Like all things Hip, the lyrics are challenging at best, but the line “You’ll have to tell me when it’s imminent, so you won’t have to endure the rise and fall alone” always strikes a chord with me, like a friend stretching out a hand in a time of crisis, possibly to someone struggling with Bipolar Disorder or some kind of addiction.
"Membership" (from Phantom Power)
The best Tragically Hip songs, in my opinion, are the ones that haunt you a little bit. Membership is definitely one of those songs. It’s one of those tracks you always seem to forget about until you revisit the album and remember how great it is. Being followed immediately on the track list by Fireworks might have something to do with that. Downie uses lots of water imagery here; being carried along and carried away by some kind of current too strong to fight. The “long-term membership” referred to in the song’s title could refer to a number of things. The YouTube comments section for this song has a few interesting theories, but the most plausible is that it’s a song about addiction, something that can feel like a long-term membership with no escape clause at times. Sometimes you might even feel like you’re drowning, but there is hope. If you’re struggling with addiction, it’s never too late to reach out for help.
"Escape is at Hand for the Travellin’ Man" (from Phantom Power)
Despite never being released as a single, "Escape is at Hand" became a fan favourite among Hip-heads. It was voted back into their setlist in the early aughts and was included on the Yer Favourites best-of compilation. It’s another slow, impassioned track in the vein of Bobcaygeon, about the Hip playing a show in New York City with 90’s power pop group Material Issue and Gord Downie’s meeting with their lead singer, Jim Ellison. Despite being a short meeting, Ellison left a strong impression on Downie and his bandmates. A few years later, Ellison tragically died by suicide and Downie wrote this song as a tribute. It’s a haunting and beautiful track and even more haunting and beautiful once you realize the context of what it’s about. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please reach out and get help. Here’s a list of where to call.
"Are We Family" (from In Between Evolution)
What is family? This underrated slow jams from the otherwise fast-paced (almost post-punk) In Between Evolution, seeks to answer that question. Family is complicated. They can be sweet, embarrassing, funny, annoying or even downright abusive, but in the end, your family is who you choose it is. I think that’s the message the song arrives at by the end, after shuffling through descriptive scenes of several worst-case scenarios involving family members/ family gatherings. Family is “one another, the lost to the recovered, the new Caledonian crow to the chimpanzee, the tribal jury to the Pakistani teen, ill starred evenings to champion mystique” (whatever that means).
"Ahead by a Century" (from Trouble at the Henhouse)
I gotta sneak in one popular song here at the end and yes, I’ve watched Anne with an E and I love that show and the exposure that it’s brought to this band and to this song. Ultimately this is a song about not living up to someone else’s expectations (or what you think are someone else’s expectations) and contemplating the finality of failure: “No dress rehearsal. This is our life.” it’s easy sometimes to feel like a failure when you don’t live up to what other people expect of you, but if there’s one overarching theme for this article, and of Gord Downie’s whole life, it’s that you should always be yourself, even if you can’t please everyone.
And now, just for fun, I want to rank every Hip album from my most to least favourite, because why not?
- Day for Night (1994)
- Fully Completely (1992)
- Up to Here (1989)
- Phantom Power (1998)
- World Container (2006)
- Road Apples (1991)
- Now for Plan A (2012)
- In Between Evolution (2004)
- Music@Work (2000)
- Trouble at the Henhouse (1996)
- Man Machine Poem (2016)
- The Tragically Hip (1987)
- We Are The Same (2009)
- In Violet Light (2002)
David is a former intern at mindyourmind. He is a mature student currently in his second year of East Asian Studies at Huron University. He speaks English, Japanese, terrible, broken Spanish and a few basic phrases in Mandarin Chinese. A lover of anime, fitness and weird music, you can often find him working out at the gym or blasting some random band through a pair of headphones (or both). He loves travelling and has lived abroad twice, in Taiwan and Colombia, and hopes to go study in Japan next year. David has Autism Spectrum Disorder with depression and OCD and he hopes to spread the word to Canada’s youth that they are not alone.
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