Gord Downie’s Away Is Mine is an album of “rough magic” that “reads the thoughts of birds” while it sings a glorious acoustic harmony to (the great) Phil Ochs’ song, ‘When I’m Gone’. Indeed, as Phil sang a long time ago: “Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone/And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I’m gone/Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone/ So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here”.
A bit of history: Gord Downie was the lead vocalist and lyricist in Canada’s favorite son rock band The Tragically Hip, who rocked with their own really cool funhouse mirror take on R.E.M.’s vital pulse (and recorded countless brilliant albums) but never broke beyond their Canadian haloed reverence. But then, Gord was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. There was a final Hip album, (the absurdly clever and beautiful) Man Machine Poem and a farewell tour with lots of big time Canadian tears (including those of Justin Trudeau) shed! And, with the close glance at imminent death, GD made this final two CD release because, as Phil Ochs also sang, “And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone/So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here”.
Gordon Downie died October 17, 2017.
It’s interesting to note the very same songs grace both discs (each running about twenty-five minutes)—the first involving vocals, slight electric guitar, percussion, and sundry electronic backing, while the second disc is bare bones with acoustic guitar and voice.
Now, truth or dare! And, seeing the given dare is to play (in its entirety!) the Justin Bieber CD mistakenly pulled by the music store guy and placed into my intended Blue Rodeo Casino purchase, I will avoid that dare: Gord’s band, The Tragically Hip, play true-blooded rock that just doesn’t fit into even the widest width of any folk circle. But, the raison d’ etre for the inclusion on this folk site is that second vocal/guitar disc (and I say this with the admission of Lifemask, Stormcock, and HQ being all time favs!), which somehow, while still existing with the street cred of a Gord Downie solo album, certainly conjures the sublime idiosyncratic voice of Roy Harper—in his most anguished tones as witnessed in Once’s ‘Nowhere To Run To’, Bullinamingvase’s ‘Cherishing The Lonesome’, HQ’s ‘Forget Me Not’, and most of Death Or Glory. Let’s just say the very same sort of impassioned vocals of both Gord and Roy drink from the locally tapped beer and then touch the heaven of humanity, or as Gord wrote, they both live ‘In A World Possessed By The Human Mind’.
Now, to the tunes: A few simple guitar notes introduce ‘Hotel Worth’ while Gord’s vocals (with echoed harmony!) search the universe for some sort of meaning and, perhaps, confessional honesty in the words, “I just live and do/Congratulations to me and to you”. Again, a simple strummed guitar introduces ‘Useless Nights’, which hangs on a tough razorblade of emotion that begs, “Please be good to me/You have saved me from useless nights”. Ditto for ‘I Am Lost’, which also mines the “sinned against Romantic” (that I think described Roy Harper in some Melody Maker years ago) ethos, with a bit of Dylan/Harper voiced inflection that sings about ‘the glory of the good in every neighborhood”, “writing about dreams”, and ultimately, just confessing that, “I’m just a man”. Then, ‘About Blank’ is pure 70’s singer-songwriter stuff replete with an (almost) Ralph McTell styled acoustic guitar solo.
Yet another truth of dare (I still don’t want to play that Justin Bieber CD!): Years ago, after hearing the R.E.M. song, ‘Losing My Religion’ I suddenly found my own (albeit quite secular!) holy trinity in the vinyl grooves of Peter Hammill, Kevin Coyne, and (the before mentioned) Roy Harper—idiosyncratic singer songwriters all, and somewhere along the line, I adopted William Blake’s “four- fold world” by adding Canadian Bruce Cockburn (he of ‘If I Had A Rocket Launcher’ fame!) to my musical resurrection list.
And yes, Away Is Mine can ride an acoustic emotional shotgun to the albums of those artists. And this record, like all great folk records, always asks, for every year and every day, about the stuff that is always, “blowing in the wind”.
And this music blows, with only sad answers, in a tragically cancerous wind. ‘River Don’t Care’ is urgent and painful. It’s a photograph of isolation with the words, “I don’t care about nature and nature don’t care about me”. Yet, ‘The Least Possible’ is up-beat and “wants what is beautiful”. There’s a rainbow of heart-urged human emotions in these grooves. ‘Traffic Is Magic’ could (begging the incongruous thought!) be an Ian Anderson song collaboration with a lucid Syd Barrett concoction. And the title track hangs in the dense evening air that punches hopefully at any remaining light. I suppose that’s the gist of this record.
Truly, ‘No Solace’ could be a nod (and I say this with yet another admission that The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage, Over, and The Future Now are also all time favs!) toward a Peter Hammill solo folky tune.
‘Untitled’ is a fitting ending to, well, just about everything. This is pure Gordon Downie with a “good-bye with no description”, like a lovely tombstone song that’s never in need of a final inscription, and it’s a tune hummed by spectral votive candle thoughts. As John Keats, the Romantic died-all-too-young poster poet once wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all/Ye know on earth, all ye need to know”. The Tragically Hip set that thought to a rock ‘n’ roll back beat, and this final Gord Downie album sets that thought into the ever-circulating grooves of a really fine folky last will and thoughtful testament, which, in a simple way, touches the density of his rock ‘n’ roll heart that once sang, “Such rough magic now/We read the thoughts of birds”.
In his final verse, Phil Ochs sang, “And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone/Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone/ So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here”.
Gord Downie, with or without his Tragically Hip rock band, did pretty much the very same thing—with his words and music he “read the thoughts of birds”—all the while when, thankfully (and “fully and completely”), he was still here.
Artist’s website: https://gorddownie.bandcamp.com/album/away-is-mine
‘Away Is Mine’ – official video:
‘Away Is Mine’ – acoustic version: