Friday, February 12, 2016

Back to the Hundredth Meridian!

I find it mildly interesting that I've mentioned the Tragically Hip song a couple of times in passing and once as a literal post about finding the meridian line, but I've never done a proper musical review and analysis of the actual song (and music video of course).

As I may have pointed out before, little is explained of this song other than that it references a longitudinal meridian line that runs through the middle of Manitoba. Lyrically, I don't get too much from the song other than the image the lyrics paint for me: A corduroy road, tall weeds, ravens carrying skulls, rusty ferris wheels in the distance, etc. The image is in black and white and looks old-fashioned. I blame the music video for influencing me to see it that way. There may be a couple of deep lyrics with bigger meanings: "Generations always dumber than its parents/came crashing through the window," or "left along to get gigantic, hard huge and haunted." Singularly left that way thanks to isolation, or a reference to humanity itself? Aside from the final verse and that, the rest of the song seems singularly focused on where the great plains begin.

Lyrics like this, and the music, give me the impression that this is probably the most Canadian-sounding band I've ever heard, because of their references to Canadian landscapes, mentality and what Canadiana would probably sound like music- and focus-wise. "I remember, I remember buffalo." Singer Gordon Downie's voice, when you listen to it, sounds like it should really be a level, calm-sounding, even timid voice. I get the impression that he sung calmly but forcefully at the same time; when I heard this as a kid, I thought he looked and sounded like an old man yelling during the chorus.

It's not a super complicated piece of music. I've always liked the backing guitar's quick changes from D major to C major, heard in the introduction and in the lead-up to the final verse after the bridge. Most of the song stays rooted in D major, with nicely overdubbed lead parts that give it a good rock edge. The chorus has an ascending progression pattern that starts in D and goes up to F, G, and B flat majors. Often during the verses you may hear a pattern that goes D-F-C instead of simply D-C, and there are other variations that play smoothly in the background. The song was recorded in London in 1992 for their third album Fully Completely, and it sounds clean and well-mixed.

I've heard this song since I was very young, and almost always around my maternal relatives. As a result I always tend to think of them, particularly as they were when I was young, when I listen to it. It was released in 1993, the year I was two.

Of course I have to touch on the music video, which has a mixture of scenes that look a certain way to me that says "early 90s Canadian video." It was filmed in Melbourne, Australia, near or around the one-hundred and forty-fifth meridian, east. Not exactly on point, but it was during a tour. It's something I've always noticed with bands: They come from one place, travel halfway across the world to record their music elsewhere, and then zig-zag further elsewhere to film the music video. I guess it's just happenstance.

In black and white, the band stand about in a barren environment playing their instruments as Downie strolls along, singing lyrics with a smile on his face when he's supposed to be yelling a line, or looking uncertain or playfully bemused during other words. He wears a hat advertising Gros Morne National Park, located in Newfoundland & Labrador. The shaky zoomed-out shots of the drummer, the guitar lying straight-on as it's played in its scenes, the spinning drum stick, the legs shuffling along near the beginning, most of the panning, close-up, or revolving shots of Downie, all give the video that silly early-90s faux dramatic sense. Downie's preference for bouncing up and down in each panning shot make him look silly, and I kind of wonder why he and the rest of the band are there to stand or bounce or stroll about singing about a meridian line. It all kind of looks unnecessary. And I haven't even mentioned all of the suspended objects that show up throughout each scene. You can spot an old car, a very fake-looking horse, an English telephone booth, a roast chicken sign, a man, and even a ladder. I'm surprised they didn't hoist up a toilet. And it wouldn't be unexpected, after all of the overhead shots of the dead tree, to immediately see that one has also been hoisted up to hang in the background. I haven't counted the camera itself; there are a few quick shots of the band from above, several heads and shoulders standing on the ground unmoving as the camera swings in the wind. I guess it was somewhat a study of looking down at and up at things, as there are many skyward shots mixed with vertical, straight-down scenes.

It really looks a lot like a combination of random ideas, one of which included renting a crane. But I guess coming up with a visual for a song merely about a meridian line and a scene isn't necessarily easy, so the result is a guy bouncing about and strolling along leisurely, excitedly singing about the one hundredth meridian. With random objects hoisted up in the background. He also carries a Polaroid camera, snapping photos of the hanging inanimate man and of the cameraman himself, revealing the latter photo to the camera in the final scene.

Song (Music+Lyrics): B+
Music video: C+

It's a good song that makes a mere fact of geographic knowledge the ongoing subject, and successfully (not forgetting the dramatic verse about burial and exhuming). The music video seems like it was produced because that's what you did with a hit single regardless of the likelihood of a good translation from lyrical idea to visual, but at least it's kind of funny in its silliness, intended or not, and in keeping one guessing at what the band and director decided to suspend in mid-air for each scene.

Red Cloud

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