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Deconstructionist rockers may concur that Music@ Work's epic track "Tiger the Lion" has outclassed them all, with Downie heading off on a mythopoetic journey that borders on master's thesis material: "John Cage had come to feel/That art in our time/Was much less important/Than our daily lives....The purpose of it's not unique/Not to build masterpieces/For a delectative elite/But simply to wake to your life."
Sinclair admits that dropping props to legendary modernist composer and music theorist Cage will probably fly over the heads of most listeners, but insists that it's just part of the Hip's distinctive lyrical pastiche (and probably a hell of a lot easier to understand than anything Geddy Lee was ever screeching about, come to think of it). "Over the course of the last tour, Bobby and Gord were passing around this book with the selected writings of John Cage, just satisfying some curiosity. As we started to jam and some of the ideas developed into songs. Gord thought it would be cool to centralize this theme and make it about spontaneous artistic creation. I realize that's not something that you're normally going to be hearing on Top 40 radio."
That intellectual rock has occasionally left the band's corporate label-masters a bit rattled, but Sinclair said impressive sales at home and a foothold in the States have allowed it a certain degree of autonomy. "There's certainly a tendency, particularly with American pop music, to dumb down to an audience level. But Gord writes primarily from an artistic point of view, and we think our fans really appreciate that. When [1991's] Road Apples came out, Universal Music determined that they were not going to release the song 'Cordelia' as a single because they felt that the Shakespearean reference would be too highbrow for the audience. That's about the same time that we started to shrug off the business concerns and just make writing for ourselves the number-one imperative."
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More recently, the band's eccentric character materialized in a wonderfully unusual writing scheme for its new album: Downie and company intended to travel by modified Pullman car, riding the rails and absorbing heartland-true material by pure osmosis. "The idea originally was to write while we took a cross-country trip from Chicago to New Orleans, a traveling woodshedding session through the backyards of America. We figured the imaginative fodder that would be available from peering over the fences would be incredible. And we could have come up with nothing, or we could have come up with fifty songs with a train rhythm in the background." Unfortunately, last-minute technical problems scuttled the idea, so the band instead headed directly to New Orleans' Kingsway Studios to craft the product.
Music@ Work marks the second consecutive time that the Tragically Hip has enlisted the assistance of producer Berlin. It's an arrangement Sinclair said he and the band find invaluable after many years of collective efforts. "Steve's main contribution is objectivity. We've gotten ourselves to a point now where our songwriting is -- well, I wouldn't want to say, systematic -- but we certainly have a routine we go into. We keep writing and adding more things and taking stuff out of songs and you get to the point where it's a little difficult for us to actually know if the song's finished or unfinished.
"Left to our own devices," he adds, "we would probably end up with forty half-finished ideas and we'd end up making Sandinista over and over again instead of one good record."