Published Oct 25, 2016For all the emotion that accompanied the Tragically Hip's final Man Machine Poem tour date in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, one of evening's most powerful moments came when frontman Gord Downie called upon Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to address and repair the country's relationship with First Nations. In an instance when countless other performers would have likely fed their audience the usual phoned-in "happy to be here" talk, Downie pushed for recognition and reconciliation.
The music of the Tragically Hip has resonated with a predominantly white Canadian audience both sonically and lyrically, becoming only more synonymous with the truth north, strong and free as the band bid farewell to fans across the country on tour this summer.
While certain Hip songs have concerned themselves with First Nations communities, "Thompson Girl" and "Goodnight Attawapiskat" among them, Downie's remarkable, multi-faceted solo project Secret Path now forces those same listeners to look close and face the ugly truth of how this same nation broke families and communities apart. As Downie points out in a statement about the record, "Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are."
Both the album and graphic novel that make up Secret Path tell the story of Chanie Wenjack, a young boy who died trying to escape a residential school near Kenora, Ontario, in 1966. Downie writes that the history of these schools is one that is hardly mentioned, as a result of it never being taught. "I am the stranger, you can't see me," he gently sings to open the record, setting the stage to ensure the boy's story doesn't remain invisible.
Forgoing the Tragically Hip sound so many associate him with, Downie and his band primarily blend folk and rock to stunning effect. Pounding drums and upbeat melodies track Wenjack's escape in "Swing Set," while the shuffling layers of keys and guitars in "I Will Not Be Struck" find him running down the train tracks with hope for the unknown.
Secret Path's most powerful material makes use of minimal arrangements. The pounding rhythm section of the story's apex "Haunt Them, Haunt Them, Haunt Them" positions Downie's urgent vocals at the forefront, while the title track, opener "The Stranger" and emotional closer "Here, Here and Here" employ reverberating piano that's nothing short of haunting.
Downie writes in his accompanying statement that "the next hundred years are going to be painful as we come to know Chanie Wenjack and thousands like him — as we find out about ourselves, about all of us — but only when we do can we truly call ourselves, 'Canada.'" In bringing a shameful and challenging piece of history to light in hopes of long-overdue reconciliation, one of Canada's greatest songwriters has delivered one of the greatest and most important artistic statements of his career. (Arts & Crafts)