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Two songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels’s playlist of the week

Gord Downie – The Stranger (2016)

The Stranger is the opening track on Secret Path, a new collection of solo material by Gord Downie. The songs on this record – like the accompanying graphic novel, animated film and a new novella by Joseph Boyden – were inspired by the true story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy who died of cold exposure after fleeing a residential school. “Canada is not Canada,” Downie has recently stated. “We are not the country we thought we were.” This “we” is worth remarking. In the 149 years since Canada’s founding, thousands of Canadian and First Nations people have been (made) vividly, unforgivably aware of what this nation “is.” But another group has prospered outside those fences, slumbering in a kind of dream. This is the “we” of Downie’s address – a “we” whose dream of Canada has overlooked anything crueler than crosschecking, anything bitterer than maple syrup. And a “we” for whom Downie’s band, the Tragically Hip, occupy an almost mythological role.

It is consequential when a member of that sleeping majority, particularly an important member, points his neighbours’ attention toward what they have been missing. It is one of the only ways to realize you are dreaming: for someone inside the dream to say, “Wake up.”

The Stranger is a sad song. The buzz of the acoustic guitar recalls Neil Young’s on Bandit, but it is much more lonely than that. Whether you can find any uplift in it at all will depend on whether you feel that the song responds to this loneliness. Is there some solace offered here? Or does Downie’s sorrow just float, unanswered, into air?

The latter would probably be truer to Chanie Wenjack’s death. But sung in 2016, The Stranger isn’t just a song of yesterday. Nor do I think it’s simply an apology. As his own life winds forward, Downie’s maybe asking everybody – including the ones that other “we” leaves out – whether we can devise some better endings.

Tanya Tagaq – Retribution (2016)

The other way to realize you are dreaming is for somebody awake to throw matches on your bed. Tanya Tagaq’s not questioning her sleepy assumptions about what this country was built on: It was a trick she didn’t fall for in the first place. The title track on her new album trembles with the force of its fury and omnipotent Tagaq, snarling at its centre, threatens to spill out of the speakers and into your living room. “Demand awakening,” the throat singer hisses, “for the path we have taken is rotted.” She shows no compassion for those who aren’t ready, and why should she? “Conduct yourself like lightning,” she roars. The fire’s overdue.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

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