Gord Downie’s Introduce Yerself is a poignant farewell

Double album offers a stripped-down, vulnerable side of the singer’s final years

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Gord Downie - Introduce Yerself Album Cover

From the first haunting notes of the piano, Gord Downie’s Introduce Yerself is a slow goodbye that unfolds over the course of two years and 23 songs.

Released on Oct. 27, the bulk of the album —17 songs worth — was written and recorded soon after Downie was diagnosed with brain cancer in early 2016, before it was publicly announced. Consequently, it’s impossible to listen to this record and separate it from these circumstances.

Often using first takes, the album takes Downie out of the rock band setting he grew famous under and re-introduces the Kingston artist in an intimate, reflective mood. Lyrically leaving it all on the table, Downie is confessional in Introduce Yerself, clearly aware these will be his last musical words.

With The Tragically Hip, Downie’s lyrics were sometimes a challenge for the band’s most committed fans to analyze. While Downie’s tracks on the new album can still be enigmatic, that’s not always the case here. There’s nothing to decode in songs like “The Lake,” Downie’s tribute to Lake Ontario.

In Introduce Yerself, Downie sounds like a man taking a sober-eyed stock of the various pieces of his life.

“I always stared at the lake,” Downie sings. “My entire life / but I saw something there today / the love of my life.”

Along with the amount of tracks it features, the thorough clarity of this record could be considered self-indulgent in less capable hands. Instead, Downie exercises an impressive amount of restraint while still exploring new avenues for his music.

Strings swell quietly in the background of the album closer “The North,” barely audible over Downie’s emotive delivery of lines referring to the presence of colonization and the “Canada we should never have called Canada.”

This song is a touching tribute to the victims of residential schools and a fitting capstone to Downie’s activism on behalf of Indigenous issues in Canada. However, it’s also a clear example of how to listen to these songs.

Introduce Yerself is an intricate album, woven with humour and subtlety demanding the listener’s full attention. It’s not because these songs are so complex that a listener could lose track by taking their headphones off for a second — it’s the opposite.

The slow-building humanity of Downie’s finale is filled with tender jokes and references that work best as a whole, taken at once. It’s the combination of things like geese honking at the end of “The Lake” and the personal, letter-like specificity of each song that draws you in and ask you to reflect.

 It’s a credit to Downie and his producer that they give each song room to breathe, allowing the listener to spend time with each sentiment before moving on. Even when they’re short — “Yer Ashore” clocks in at a speedy 1:31 — they take the space they need to have maximum impact.

 As a result, they might not have the same longstanding place at campfires as many Tragically Hip classics, but they’ll live on in a quieter, more dignified way. This isn’t an album to take lightly, but it’s still one to enjoy in its own way, even if it won’t be in an arena.

 As hard as goodbyes can be, they’re rarely so beautiful. 


 

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