Chalk it up to the adolescent bias of popular music, but rare is the rocker willing to tackle the topic of parenthood. Oh sure, one could cite treacle such as “Butterfly Kisses”, but few songwriters get inside the experience of raising children without resorting to Hallmark platitudes.
Which is just another reason to mark Gordon Downie as a singular artist. Downie, whose principle gig is fronting Canadian hitmakers the Tragically Hip, peppered his 2001 solo debut Coke Machine Glow with affecting reflections on child-rearing (“Chancellor”, “Trick Rider”). That tendency continues on Downie’s latest, Battle Of The Nudes, released in June on Zoe/Rounder in the U.S. (and MapleMusic/Universal in Canada).
The twelve-song set kicks off with a nervous dad’s fever dream called “Into The Night” (“I saw you running with your friends/I called your name too loud come back/So many times, it might have been embarrassing if you hadn’t come walking back”) and climaxes with a punked-up rant entitled “We’re Hardcore”, which gives voice to the mingled shock and exhilaration of familial obligation (“There’s a kid in the street/One on the bed/One on the hip/One on the floor!”).
When Downie takes on fatherhood, he gives voice to profound sentiment without tripping into sentimentality. It proves to be such a rich topic, it’s a wonder more songwriters don’t get in on the act.
“The solo records have been made during periods where I have been very closely connected to my daily life, being in and around my family day and night,” Downie explained via telephone from Halifax during a break from shooting a video for the new album’s first single, “Pascal’s Submarine”.
“The records probably reflect that — the sound of your daily life. At the same time, you are interested in the craft of [making records]. I just found the daily life informing the craft and vice-versa.”
Battle Of The Nudes was made with essentially the same crew — now dubbed the Country Of Miracles — that backed Downie when he toured in support of Coke Machine Glow (including Skydiggers guitarist Josh Finlayson, guitarist Dale Morningstar, drummer Dave Clark, pianist Dr. Pee and bassist Julie Doiron). While Coke Machine Glow was a bare-bones effort, Nudes is a more assured, heavier affair.
“Pascal’s Submarine”, which weaves French thinker Blaise Pascal’s Pensees into a retelling of the Kursk submarine disaster, is erected on a pure-pop foundation borrowed from The Beatles’ “I Want To Tell You”. “Figment” is live-off-the-floor garage rock; the siren guitar and dense, pummeling rhythm of “11th Fret” is reminiscent of David Bowie’s Berlin-era records; and “Willow Logic” features a vocal Downie literally phoned in while riding his bike home through the streets of Toronto.
After completing Battle Of The Nudes, Downie returned to the studio with the Country Of Miracles for a rollicking version of the folk classic “If I Had A Hammer”, which wound up on Peace Songs, a recent benefit album for the War Child charity.
Downie’s willingness to take chances and drift well off the beaten path is all the more impressive when one considers his stature in his native land. The Tragically Hip remains one of the most revered acts on the Canadian music scene. Their status as a multi-platinum arena-rock attraction afforded the group the luxury of recording their most recent release, In Violet Light, in the Bahamas with producer Hugh Padgham (Police, Phil Collins, XTC). Battle Of The Nudes is, by comparison, the product of a cottage industry — conceived with friends and recorded on the quick, without the attendant homeland fanfare that greets every one of the Hip’s gestures.
“I like songwriting and I am constantly trying to figure out a way to have it dovetail with my daily life. Sometimes I have got that nailed,” Downie said, adding that even as Battle Of The Nudes was being readied for release, he was writing new material with the Tragically Hip in the band’s home base of nearby Kingston, Ontario.
“It has been a good run the last bunch of years. It is sort of what I had hoped,” he says of his parallel creative outlets. “I have been living in Toronto for fifteen years. It took a while, but ultimately, I have been having a couple of years I had always hoped I would have — working with a bunch of people from around there and getting on my bike and getting all over the city, then home for dinner.
“I want to be a better musician, a better writer, a stronger writer. I want to be able to catch more stuff as it is going by. Build a bigger net. I am learning a lot.”