Arts & Crafts Productions AC195CD
Format: 2 CDs
Gord Downie’s solo album Introduce Yerself was released in October 2017, just ten days after the death of the iconic frontman and creative genius of The Tragically Hip. I assumed we had heard his final album, but Downie’s brothers later revealed that additional recordings were being prepared for release, and now we have Away Is Mine. Downie and Skydiggers guitarist Josh Finlayson, who had played on several of Downie’s previous solo recordings, cowrote the music for Away Is Mine and Downie wrote the lyrics.
Songwriting began during the winter of 2017 and followed an unusual process. Finlayson recorded ideas for chord progressions and sent them to Downie by phone. The singer responded with a melody and lyrics, also via phone. They finalized the songs on Downie’s laptop and went into the studio to record them in July 2017, three months before Downie’s death. He and Finlayson completed the basic tracks at the Hip-owned Bathouse Recording Studio, with engineer Nyles Spencer at the board. They then gave Spencer the job of creating a record around those tracks.
The first disc of Away Is Mine is the result of Spencer’s work. The second disc is labeled “Acoustic” and contains the ten basic tracks, which feature Downie accompanied by Finlayson’s guitar and some studio tweaking. In the original acoustic version, effects and reverb surround Downie’s voice on “Hotel Mine,” giving it a distant quality. In the final version, keyboard washes create a spectral air for the song, drums help center it rhythmically, and Travis Good, of the Sadies, adds slide guitar to bring an exotic blues edge to the song.
The finalized tracks are more fully realized than the original recordings, without sacrificing the intentions of the songs, which are expressed through Downie’s voice. “Useless Nights” employs processed keyboards and electronic drums to create a more layered and sonically intricate track that builds upon the 12-string guitar and voice used on the acoustic version of the song. Percussion and effects filter through “I Am Lost,” and Good adds a quiet but effective countermelody on mandolin.
Some of the acoustic tracks used effects, such as the ambient keyboard sounds in “The Least Impossible,” or the strange, ghostly manipulations of Downie’s vocals on the title track. For the most part, however, the acoustic versions are basic and straightforward. Some of the finalized versions are dramatically different. “The Least Impossible” is packed with keyboard effects that give the track an electronica feel, while the added guitars and rumbling bass on “Traffic Is Magic” create a heftier sound with more impact.
Inevitably, Gord Downie’s knowledge of his impending death runs through the songs, and he writes about mortality and his desire to remain creative rather than giving in to despair. “I’m in awe of no one anymore / I have none of your fear,” he sings on “About Blank.” He hits a slightly different note on “The Least Impossible” when he sings “I don’t want the dark / I don’t want the end / Don’t even want the dark preview.” Throughout Away Is Mine, Downie holds on to his dignity, even as his illness causes his mental capacity and his time on Earth to fade.
It’s a surprise, then, to find that Away Is Mine is hopeful in its affirmation of life as Downie still grasps for meaning and human connection. I have to admit that I’ve approached this disc and Downie’s other posthumous release, Introduce Yerself, with hesitation. It pains me that he’s gone. Yet both albums are reminders of his vibrant creative spirit.
I found things to like in both presentations of the music on Away Is Mine. Finlayson’s wonderful open-tuned guitar on “About Blank” gives Downie’s voice a spirited accompaniment on the acoustic version, but Travis Good’s fiddle playing and guitar solo help create more intensity on the fully realized track. Other songs, such as “River Don’t Care” and “The Least Impossible,” were better served in their stripped-down recordings, where the deep feeling in Downie’s voice comes through more starkly.
It was a smart decision to include the original and finished recordings on Away Is Mine. Far from being a sad closing chapter, Away Is Mine is filled with reminders of Gord Downie’s irreplaceable artistry.
. . . Joseph Taylor