The Tragically Hip: We Are the Same

Zoë/Rounder
Music •••• Sound ••••
Where there's smoke, there's fire. At least, that's what we're told by the cover art for the Tragically Hip's 12th studio album, We Are the Same, as the Ontario fivepack watches the heart of a blaze get more and more intense until it wends its way up into neonlike sparks. The same could be said for The Same itself, as the music builds purposefully from match strike to inferno before cooling down into a smoky afterglow.

The wistful opener, "Morning Moon," begins acoustically - the primary bed for most of the 12 tracks here - before settling into a measured alt-country twang, complete with full harmonies that complement the song's laid-back vibe. This leads to an emblematic line of cold comfort from sage-sphinx singer/lyricist Gordon Downie, who sheepishly admits to saying "those little things that don't make anyone feel better." His description of the titular moon introduces the theme of reflection that permeates the record: continually taking hard, honest looks at the state of one's relationships, both interpersonally and internationally. In a sense, the album's lyrics take the concept of "think global, act local" to the nth degree.

After feeling out each other's strengths and weaknesses on 2006's World Container, the Hip and returning producer Bob Rock move beyond their found common ground by adding new textures to the band's guitar-centric sound. "Honey, Please" motors into Springsteen territory, with fist-pumping piano by Barenaked Ladies' Kevin Hearn and organ fills from John Webster driving the beat. Organ and accordion support a layered chorus on "The Last Recluse," sampled beats and a trumpet solo percolate in the bouncy "Coffee Girl," and strings fuel "Now the Struggle Has a Name," which opens with anthemic, Boston/"Amanda"-style acoustic strumming on the verses before giving way to Rob Baker's hard-edged solo.

All of this leads to "The Depression Suite," the longest studio track the band has recorded to date, clocking in at 9:27 and consisting of three seamless movements: "The Rock," "NewOrleansWorld," and "Don't You Wanna See How It Ends?" A string section reinforces the drama in the melody at the end of "The Rock" during the pivotal lines "Are you going through something? / Then I - I - I - I / I am, too." In the next part, Downie reveals one of a songwriter's key fears: "And I'm thinking just in passing / What if this song does nothing?" The entire "Suite" should become the centerpiece of the Hip's live sets - and I humbly suggest that, at some point, it needs to be performed with a full orchestra.

The back end of the record kicks things into higher gear. Guitar riffs move to the forefront of "The Exact Feeling," and the pace quickens further on both "Queen of the Furrows" and "Speed River." These are followed by the gruff "Frozen in My Tracks" (replete with layered "whoah-oh"s on the chorus) and the pleading "Love Is a First" - the first studio Hip track to truly incorporate Downie's rapid-fire live lyrical-improv style, splayed here atop Baker's razor-sharp guitar lines.

Everything comes full circle with the gentle-breeze summation of "Country Day," a microcosm of the journey that listener and band have taken together for 57 minutes. While the experience is indeed a shared one, the 12 songs here most definitely do not remain the same.

Author's note: I'm quite pleased to report that We Are the Same is also available as a double LP. Go to thehip.com/gift-shop for all the wax-centric details.

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