canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Coke Machine Glow - CD
by Gordon Downie
Wiener Art Records; distributed by Universal Music Canada

Coke Machine Glow
by Gordon Downie
Vintage Canada, 2001

Reviewed by Marc Ponomareff

It's no secret to fans of The Tragically Hip that Gordon Downie possesses unique and impressive gifts as a singer and songwriter: there's no mistaking that voice which can lull the listener into a false sense of security, just before making the hairs on one's nape stand on end; that often bemused attitude of his toward human foibles which can switch, within a second, to barely-concealed rage at human stupidity and barbarism; or that mixture of disdain for hapless humankind even as an undercurrent of pity for all the broken, betrayed, or maladjusted amongst us makes itself felt. 

And to this must be added another, intriguing quality of his singing: that combination of melancholy and love of absurdity which results in lyrical streams-of-consciousness that often manage to make sense even as they unsettle and disorient the listener. My favorite songs of his were always those slower, sometimes eerie and often very sad excursions he made into unusual areas of human psychology - 'singing without a net' is a phrase that springs to mind - and now, like a gift (I say this without exaggeration), comes a solo album in which he indulges this ability and turns loose some truly beautiful songs.

Vancouver Divorce must be one of the all-time greatest 'break-up' songs I've heard, hitting you where it hurts even as it manages, somehow, to raise your spirits. Trick Rider is a powerfully affecting ode to a parent's ever-present fear that something terrible will befall their child (in this case, Downie's worries about a possible riding accident - which may well have been contributed to by his having seen the grim ending to Kubrick's 'Barry Lyndon'). A father myself, I can't listen to this song without feeling the onset of helplessness and even fear, these effects a testimony to Gordon Downie's skills. Men harvesting a marijuana crop from the midst of a cornfield while stoned (as I visualize it, anyway) come to life in Canada Geese; the singer's interest in the humorous side of neuroses and his intentional distortion of language and word-meanings come to the fore in Chancellor and in Blackflies; The Never-Ending Present contributes an intriguing display of Downie's metaphysical preoccupations; and the great ballads Lofty Pines and Every Irrelevance would, on their own, be reason enough to purchase this album.

'The Voice' cannot be denied: much of this album is, in a word, awesome. By all means, rush out - immediately - minding the traffic as you go - and purchase this fine CD.

Now, to the book. Without a doubt, Gordon Downie has a poetic spirit, and has at his command the abilities of a fine lyricist - but that alluring, by turns eloquent and menacingly raw voice of his is an integral part of his talent. His original images and word-play, when bereft of the unique spin and layers of meaning which his voice is able to give them, do not fare as well when simply transposed to the page. Even the most humdrum and ordinary of phrases will undergo a kind of alchemical reaction when sung by Downie: but mere concatenations of words, in simply lying there without discernible rhyme or rhythm on the page before a reader, as they do here, can only make for a prosaic and unsatisfying experience.

On a brighter note, there are 'Downie-isms' aplenty:

Sing about Canada, even if it gets you nowhere.

The distant bark of a
lone snow shovel
digging out after the storm

A punch thrown in a dream
that elicits only laughter

If you start to cry
you'll make me cry
and, believe me, my crying
could make your crying
look like laughing.

and the night of a thousand missteps
and the loss that made him dogged
or it could've been the doggedness
that caused the loss in the first place-

These flashes of inspiration from a great Canadian singer/songwriter are enjoyable. But, to be honest, I'm unsure what, exactly, to make of it all. This portion of the review will now trail off into ellipses, that last refuge of the confounded...

In Michigan Gig, Gordon Downie writes:

"Tyranny of idiots," I mutter,
"My songs were built to fight wars."

And they certainly are that powerful - when they're sung.

Marc Ponomareff is a Toronto writer and the editor of & and Drop the Buddha.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.