The Tragically Hip are a group that I've always found enigmatic. Probably only second to Rush as Canada's most beloved rock band (apologies to The Guess Who), the Kingston, Ontario outfit has a history of eliciting either very hot or very cold responses to their albums from me. Back when I actually listened to the radio, I'd immediately reach for the tuner when anything off their first three releases was played (and tracks like "Blow At High Dough", "New Orleans Is Sinking", "Last American Exit", and "Little Bones" were played ad nauseum on Toronto-area rock stations back then). Then 1992's Fully Completely came out and I was transformed from a hater into a lover, albeit on a selective level - I still can't stand their earliest material. To this day, Fully Completely remains one of the best albums in my music collection. Its follow-up (Day For Night) was good, but far less memorable, and the next album (Trouble At The Henhouse) had the outstanding "Ahead By A Century" and little else that left a lasting impression. "Bobcaygeon" from 1998 was the last good Hip song I'd hear for the next decade, as their output during that time either flew underneath my radar, or the singles I did hear failed to stir any interest. Fast forward to 2009, where I find myself emphatically hopping back on board the Hip bandwagon after sampling their We Are The Same album on a whim and being knocked on my ass at how good it was. Which brings us to their 13th studio release, Now For Plan A, promoted by the band with a series of live performances at a Now For Plan A store they opened for four days in Toronto's Kensington market area the week of the album's release.
Now For Plan A is a worthy successor to We Are The Same, similarly delivering a high level of quality throughout nearly all of the album's eleven tracks ("Streets Ahead" is a bit of a dud), including what I think are a couple of candidates for some of the strongest work the group has ever created in the title track and "We Want To Be It". "Now For Plan A" opens with a 75 second instrumental section constructed of shimmering guitars and light percussive touches that lend the laid-back track a dreamy quality, with guest vocalist Sarah Harmer contributing some beautiful harmony vocals that nicely compliment those of vocalist Gord Downie (Harmer also sings on "The Lookahead"). "We Want To Be It" and its insanely catchy verses and choruses just may be the best Hip song I've ever heard, as Downie's idiosyncratic vocal style is on full display via his oddball "drip, drip, drip" refrain (listen below). Downie's weirdness can be alienating (witness the batty extended live version of "New Orleans Is Sinking" where Downie goes off on a monologue that has him having a conversation with a killer whale), but on Now For Plan A, I find it adds an extra measure of attraction to the material. Certainly, "We Want To Be It" would be a less interesting piece of work without that quality, which also manifests itself in the track's unorthodox lyrical structure. The first few lines of "About This Map" also stand out with some unconventional wordplay: About this map/Here we are here/See, this is us/The exit is here. On paper, those lines shouldn't work, but Downie somehow makes it come together effectively. Now For Plan A is fairly evenly split between poppier material and songs that rock a little more, such as the dark album opener "At Transformation", "Man Machine Poem", and "Take Forever". Further standout tracks: the captivating ballad "Done And Done" and album closer "Goodnight Attawapiskat", referencing the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario that made headlines last year during a housing crisis in their community.
The Tragically Hip are a perfect example of one of those groups whose bar band sound shouldn't sound unique, but somehow does - you know who it is after only hearing a few seconds of music, before Downie even injects his eccentricities into the mix. I listened to a few of Now For Plan A's songs specifically trying to figure out what gives them that identifiable sound - is it a particular method of mixing/production, or signature styles from drummer Johnny Fay, bassist Gord Sinclair, and guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois? I'm just not hearing anything unique. Whatever method they employ to generate that standalone instrumental identity, it and Downie's signature quirkiness has definitely been working for them to great effect lately. Based on my track record with this band, I wouldn't even hazard a guess as to how much I'll like what the Hip are coming up with ten years from now, though.