Review Summary: Six “new” Hip songs, just in time for the long weekend
I struggled thinking of how I was going to start this review. I thought about writing something like “If you’re Canadian, The Tragically Hip need no introduction”. But then I wondered about the younger generation and if their parents don’t show them then maybe they won’t know. Could it be? But surely they’ll hear “Ahead by a Century” or “Courage” on the radio one day and find out.... but then I thought, ‘do kids even listen to the radio anymore, does anyone’? So I contemplated something like ”No Canadian over 25 needs any introduction to The Hip” but by then I hated the sentence altogether. Perhaps the upcoming generation will be indoctrinated at school from a young age - “Kids, in today’s class we’re learning about The Tragically Hip, everybody loves them here in Canada and you will too, now here’s “Bobcaygeon”. It’s hard to refrain from making these grand, hyperbolic statements when writing about The Hip - about how they are Canada’s “best kept secret” and a source of national pride, or about how deeply woven into the country’s cultural fabric they are, or how they impressively achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success over their decade spanning career and how their songs ring out across hockey rinks and around campfires all over the Great White North and will for some time. It’s all been said before and in a backhanded, convoluted way I’ve done it again now. The fact is The Tragically Hip are Canadian music legends, frontman Gord Downie an icon and we were dealt a huge blow when he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in the spring of 2016. Downie passed away the following year but not before the band embarked on one final cross-country tour that summer, culminating in an epic, emotional farewell concert, a nationally televised event that really felt like the whole country was watching together.
But beyond this mythic status achievement, when it comes down to it The Hip just really knew how to write damn good rock songs, and that’s evident in this newly released collection. These new songs are in fact old, having resurfaced in 2019 after a New York Magazine article erroneously reported them among the wreckage of the 2008 Universal Studios fire, prompting the search to find out where the songs actually were. While this EP will be intrinsically linked to the story and context surrounding its release and will no doubt influence the listening experience and expectations for many listeners (there’s no way I can unbiasedly hear this), “Saskadelphia” stands pretty well on its own - the songs sound fresh yet serve as a time capsule of the band at their bluesiest. Indeed, one could probably go into it blind and enjoy it for what it is - 6 serviceable rock songs by a great band in their prime. Five of the six songs were recorded in New Orleans during the sessions for their 1991 album “Road Apples” while one is a 2000 live cut whose studio version remains lost. The obvious result is that most of these tracks could’ve easily fit on that 1991 record and some are so good I’m surprised they didn’t. It’s name, “Saskadelphia”, was the originally intended title for “Road Apples” but was reportedly deemed ‘too Canadian’ by the label (I am having deja vu now, having dropped this very tidbit in my review of “Road Apples” on this site almost 15 years ago).
The bluesy guitar licks, Downie’s signature voice - it’s all on display in opener “Ouch”, calling to mind one of their best tunes, “Little Bones”. “Not Necessary” is a more mid-tempo, melodic rocker with a memorable chorus while “Montreal” is a haunting song alluding to the tragic 1989 mass shooting, performed live on the 11th anniversary. “Crack My Spine Like a Whip”, “Just As Well” and “Reformed Baptist Blues” are catchy blues-rock numbers, gritty and lean, the latter a particular highlight.
If you were to strip away all the context surrounding the release of “Saskadelphia”, then it’s a B-sides EP (albeit an impressive one). But for longtime listeners, for the millions of people who gathered with friends and family to watch The Hip’s final concert that late summer night almost five years ago, it could represent something more than that. It could be like a surprise visit from an old familiar friend, or a reminder to cherish the good times and all that mushy sentimental stuff. But worst-case-Ontario, it’s a nice treat for fans of the band: a solid batch of new old songs just in time for the long weekend. And for this Canuck living on the other side of the world, it’s a warm reminder of home.