Gord Downie's new album is called Battle of the Nudes, which might once have stirred memories of Greek vase-painting, but which now reminds us how even classic things, given time, can become surreal. There's an image on the cover (by Montreal artist Jon Claytor) of an angel in a striped sweater with drawn six-guns, looking undecided as to whether to fly you off to heaven where there's hockey, or shoot you down to hell, where there isn't.
The nudes came into it by chance, when Downie glanced at a newspaper and saw a headline that meant more to him than the story it was attached to (about an Italian Renaissance print). He's very interested in chance encounters with people and things, and in the mystery of how they happen.
"Whenever I meet someone cool and interesting, I'm uncommonly shocked at how easy it would have been not to meet that person," he said in his slow baritone, during a conversation one rainy afternoon in a Toronto café. He was referring to some of the fans he has met after shows with the Tragically Hip, but he could have been talking about any of the shards of experience that give him a phrase or a feeling that has to be used in a song.
And they do have to be used, as soon as possible. Use It Up is his axiom, borrowed from his hero-in-letters Raymond Carver, and duly fed into a song by the same name on the Hip's latest album, In Violet Light.
Sometimes a thing has to be used so urgently that Downie will jump off his bike to speak or sing it into a phone. It happened that way with Willow Logic, a song that came out of a conversation with one of his children, but that had stalled for lack of some unidentified thing. He saddled up and rode till he found it. It's on Battle of the Nudes just as he delivered it to guitarist and co-producer Dale Morningstar's answering machine.
Using things up means not letting them go to waste, and maybe also showing your gratitude that they came your way in the first place. It wouldn't be quite right to say that Downie's songs are the work of a mystic, but even when he's singing about apparently mundane things you get the feeling that he's acknowledging forces that can't be spoken of directly.
Battle of the Nudes is Downie's second solo disc, after the twin release, in 2001, of an album and a book of poems called Coke Machine Glow. The new album was recorded quickly, in 10 days in studios in Toronto and Bath, Ont., but the short genesis doesn't mean that Downie's about to abandon it at birth. He and his other band, Country of Miracles (Morningstar, bassist Josh Finlayson, drummer Dave Clark, singer Julie Doiron, and keyboard guy Mr. Pee), are planning 36 live shows in Canada and the U.S., four times the number he did to support Coke Machine Glow.
As the saying goes, making art is partly knowing what to leave out. Downie's habits of semantic elision are so ingrained that they leave little puzzle-spots in his conversation, as for instance when he explained what he likes about living in Toronto.
"It's a big small town. You know, people work in jobs, live their lives. I like this castle."
"This hassle?" I said, mishearing it.
" Castle." No explanation. A blurt of laughter from Downie. Only later did I figure out the unspoken syllogism: Toronto is my home; a man's home is his castle; therefore Toronto is my castle.
Other things got said with what sounded like quotation marks, but sans footnotes, or affectation either. Sometimes they recurred through the conversation without my ever getting a grip on what they meant for him, such as a line from an animated version of 101 Dalmations that he said rattled in his brain for days: "First the melody dear, then the lyric."
I asked about Pascal's Submarine, a song about the Kursk disaster, because Pascal, the author of the Pensées, seems so remote from the fate of those Russian sailors, and of the distraught woman (depicted in the lyrics) who was jabbed with a hypodermic when she got too loud in front of the TV cameras. Downie reminded me that Pascal had a theory about the virtue of sitting quietly in your room, and so did the Russian officials who theorized pointlessly as to how many men could survive with minimal motion in a bubble of air inside the wrecked sub. Question answered. But I felt as though I had spoiled the game by forcing him to draw a straight line, where he would rather let zig run to zag.
Straight lines nearly got him into trouble after Coke Machine Glow. He got so much from the new experience of working with an editor and grooming his lines on a laptop that he figured the same method might improve his song-writing.
"For In Violet Light, I went down to the studio with my laptop, kind of John Gardner-ing it, revising and revising and revising . . . And we got right to the point of me singing the songs, and I wasn't convinced that I wasn't trying to write lines that had exactly the same number of letters," he said, as he drew that straight margin in the air.
"I got up to the mike, and guess what, it was really clunky. So I had to start cutting things out on the spot, a word here and a word there, to make it seem like it was all just occurring to me, which is the secret, apparently . . . And what I learned from that session was that you have to prepare and refine, but you also need time in front of a microphone, just singing it."
Funny, that he should think he was just learning that, after a couple of decades of writing songs and performing all across Canada, and selling upward of five million records with the Hip. But part of Downie's poetic equipment runs on the energy of discovering that you don't fully understand what you think you know. "First the melody, dear, then the lyric." Looked at in the right way, even a cliché can be an opportunity.
In any case, there's no need to get lost in Downie's piles of puzzle dust (to borrow a phrase from his song Figment) unless you want to. He's in popular music, after all, and his songs are close enough to the broad highway to greet almost all comers. His tunes roll and rattle like things made with care in a home garage, and like many a skilled worker, he has pet solutions for certain melodic problems. He's also up for some really inventive ones, such as the seething tone-colour melody of Who By Rote. Chasing down his verbal conceits may be exactly the wrong way to go, since the things gathered into his songs work because they've been removed from their original context, not because they need to be reunited with it.
In short, I didn't get far by "talking in driftnets" (again from Figment), dragging for clues about the meaning of this or that. I didn't discover why any particular song idea seemed better for a solo venture than for a recording with the Hip. My drift-netting did uncover the occasion-specific nature of a few things: the two songs (including Who By Rote) that came out of improvisations with the WoodChoppers Association and dancer Andrea Nann, and another that began as a supporting letter for a TV production grant application (!) by Daniel Richler. Mostly I learned about the texture of being with Downie, who turned out to be a lot like his music: earthy yet abstract; open yet full of private meanings; cosmopolitan in outlook but Canadian to the core.
He's also funny, in a mostly subterranean way. "Through these last several moments / words have taught me that words / are folly and that when the ancient slams into the transient / there's no way to determine who should get their money back." Reading those lines (from his song Pillform) an hour after our meeting, I thought of figures on a vase, the rain coming down, and both of us peering through the window at our bikes on Bloor, wondering who would get wetter.
Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles play Lee's Palace in Toronto tonight; the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ont., on July 4; the Ottawa Blues Festival on July 6; and Malkin Bowl at Stanley Park in Vancouver on Aug. 31.