Locked in with Day For Night and the Tragically Hip
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“But now they’re strapping you in
And closing the lid
And they’re dropping you in
What’s done is did.”
There’s something so appropriate about that passage, at least as it relates to the past few days. Here, the singer describes the moment of being locked in a barrel, of being secured within its circular container of being ready to be thrown over the yawning expanse of Niagra Falls with only the thin wooden veneer as protection from a cold and unfeeling and hugely powerful force of nature.
Oh, what a bizarre trip of a few days here. From that lingering feeling for weeks that “this virus thing seems serious” to “I guess we should make sure we have some food and vitamins on hand in case we get sick” to “okay, so now no one leaves the house, ever, and no one is ever coming to help so you’re on your own and also it’s on you to stay entertained and employed, thank you and good day and good night.”
And that’s how we arrive in this place, early on a Sunday evening, a few beverages into the festivities and listening to the Tragically Hip at very loud volumes, where Gord Downie unravels the psychology of going over a world-famous waterfall in a barrel for the approval of strangers. The song is “Daredevil,” the record is Day For Night circa 1994 and it’s just the next in a series of albums and films and programs deployed in the name of entertainment and not being driven to complete cabin craze.
So, yes, hello. It’s March 15, 2020, I worked from home two days earlier for the first of likely many days, everyone has stolen all the toilet paper because apparently that’s what’s needed to fend off a viral apocalypse, and I’m listening to 26-year-old rock songs from the Great White North. Because that’s how I calm down.
Day For Night is, even within the confines of the Tragically Hip’s career, such a weird record. Impeccably recorded, it is still not exactly the definition of accessible, at least in terms of the masses. The album was the fourth full-length effort by the band, with MCA clearly hoping that this band would finally cash in on the alternative trip running through the U.S. at the time. They were selling out arenas in Canada, but that meant nothing to a multinational conglomerate. There were 10 times as many possible consumer wallets to reach below the Canadian border, and they wanted them to hit as many of them as possible.
Instead, the band went towards the music. And for that, all the better are we. They led it off with “Grace, Too” as the first song and lead single, an opaque track that seems to be about a planned murder-for-higher but can just as easily play as commentary on a strained relationship, or just the inner delusions of someone who wants to reach a higher plane. It’s all hard to pin down, but it’s compelling. As the second line of the song goes, “Come on, just let’s go,” it sets the tone for some weirdness to follow.
Another apt moment occurs within the stripped-away blues of “So Hard Done By.” It’s not a literal transcription of the current day, but there’s something darkly humorous about the image of the stripper quitting during a coughing fit, saying, “sorry, I can’t go on with this.” The song trudges on with its repeating three-note riff, getting slightly meaner with each second before stopping suddenly, without anything resembling resolution.
Songs like that dovetail nicely with our moments of inhumanity as well. Reports of people raiding grocery stores and hoarding toilet paper easily call to mind the survivors from “Nautical Disaster,” climbing aboard from the ocean to safety while kicking off the unlucky ones to die in the water. In moments of great stress, there are times when we come together, and there are times when we’re on our own. The way the band plays off of Downie’s lyrics, and vice versa, creates a pliable tension that lifts every song. There’s a sonic weight to everything that feels a bit deeper and a bit darker as the album rolls on.
The parallels really come to a head on “Emergency,” with the situation stretching beyond relevancy in “an endless emergency without end.” The song ties in lyrically with the album’s twin finales, “Titanic Terrarium” and “Impossibilium.” In the former, Downie marvels at the day-to-day lives of the working people, those cogs in the machine who help build those modern day miracles of human engineering, and how they’re the ones most likely to recognize the ridiculousness of infallibility. And in the latter, there’s nothing we can do to stop the inevitable. All we can do is watch it.
So it is, and so here we are. And while I’m here, eating snacks and reading contagion charts and counting the minutes and attempting to fill in the time that might have been otherwise spent in the company of others, I might as well listen to this. It wasn’t their intention when they wrote and recorded it, and it wasn’t my intention that this would be this album’s purpose when I got it. But I’m still here, like the protagonist in “Daredevil,” strapped in, closed under the lid, dropped in. What’s done is did.
March 15, 2020
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com