Although he died nearly three years ago, Gord Downie continues to update his discography. On Oct. 16, the Toronto-based label Arts & Crafts will release Away is Mine, a double album recorded just three months before the iconic Canadian rock troubadour and Tragically Hip front man succumbed to brain cancer on Oct. 17, 2017.
The 20-track collection is comprised of electric and acoustic versions of 10 new songs co-written with frequent collaborator Josh Finlayson, laid down at the Tragically Hip’s studio in Bath, Ont., in July, 2017.
“There really wasn’t a plan to make a record,” Finlayson said in a press release. “The whole thing was that I knew this was a great way to spend time with Gord, listening to music, talking about music, talking about things that we’d always talked about.”
Away is Mine follows the release of 2017′s Introduce Yerself, an autobiographic double LP issued posthumously, and 2016′s Secret Path, a conceptual album inspired by the story of Chanie Wenjack, a First Nations boy who died tragically in 1966.
Although Away is Mine is the last album Downie recorded, fans can expect more from the poetic rocker in the future. “This won’t be his last release, but these are the final ten songs Gord sang before he passed away, the last time he ever sang into a mic,” Finlayson and Downie’s younger brother Patrick said in a joint statement.
In addition to the unreleased solo music from Downie still in the vault, odds and sods from the Tragically Hip are also expected to see the light of day at some point. Earlier this year, it was announced that the band’s former manager was hired to supervise multiple archival projects.
“You have this massive amount of catalogue," said Jake Gold, who managed the Tragically Hip from 1986 to 2003. "There’s tons of unreleased tracks, there’s videos, there’s footage, there’s just a lot of stuff and there’s a lot to do.”
It is believed that a 30th-anniversary reissue of the band’s second album, Road Apples, is in the works for 2021.
This week’s announcement of the new Downie solo album is accompanied by the release of two singles. The album-opening Hotel Worth shuffles slowly to a windy, ambient soundscape, with Downie’s vocals floating just above the mist: “I just live and do, congratulations to me or to you.”
Useless Nights, the album’s second track, has a dreamy electro-country feel, set to an easygoing lope. “Sleeping in dreary places,” Downie sings on the song’s bridge. “I’m bored with being down.”
Given the titles and lyrical themes, it’s possible the words to the two songs were written by Downie while on the road. The Tragically Hip toured for the final time in the summer of 2016, months after Downie was first treated for glioblastoma, an aggressive, incurable disease. Downie also toured his multimedia Secret Path project in the fall of 2016, with concerts in Halifax, Ottawa and Toronto.
After his diagnosis, Downie had hopes of writing a book. But according to Finlayson, Downie felt the project was too isolating. “‘Too much time with himself’ was what he said to me,” Finlayson said, quoted in an essay by music writer Ben Rayner included in the Away is Mine liner notes.
With work on the book abandoned, Downie and Finlayson began writing songs together remotely. Finlayson would send Downie musical ideas by phone. “Usually, anywhere from within 30 minutes to two hours, he’d send something back with a lyric and a melody," recalled Finlayson, a member of the Toronto folk-rockers the Skydiggers.
With the 10 song demos completed, it was Downie’s idea to record them properly at the Bathouse Recording Studio, located on Lake Ontario near Downie’s hometown of Kingston. The singer-songwriter’s short-term memory was affected by two cranial surgeries. “He’d forget arrangements or whatever,” Finlayson said.
Others on hand for the recording included Travis Good of the Sadies, who contributed fiddle, mandolin and guitar parts. Tragically Hip associate Dave (Billy Ray) Koster and Lou Downie, Gord’s son, played drums. Engineer Nyles Spencer used synthesizers, drum loops and vocal effects to produce a highly textured final product.
Downie’s health took a turn for the worse soon after the album was recorded. According to the liner-note essay, a week after Downie got back from the studio to Toronto he was no longer in any condition to do further recording. “Things just went really far south, just in terms of that kind of function,” Patrick Downie said. “It was kind of the last gasp.”
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