Album review: The Tragically Hip, Phantom Power (1998)



By Steve Newton

I took my wife, Dawn, to see the Tragically Hip at Thunderbird Stadium last summer when she was seven months pregnant with our first child, Tess Georgia.

They say a body is susceptible to sonic vibrations in utero, and I’d have to agree, ’cause now, when I put 10-month-old Tess in her Jolly Jumper and crank up the new Hip tune “Fireworks”, she bounces around like it’s a Ramones gig at the Commodore.

Tess must be a chip off the old block, ’cause I’ve always had a soft spot for raging Hip tunes like “Coconut Cream” and “Fire in the Hole”. But anyone who’s followed the band’s glorious evolution from late-’80s groove merchants to bold guitar-rock explorers knows that it’s capable of moving listeners through more discriminating means as well.

When the Kingston quintet tones things down just a notch, as on “Vapour Trails”—the standout track from its new Phantom Power CD—the subtle buildup of raggedy guitars leads to an exhilarating clamour that would do Neil Young & Crazy Horse proud.

I have no idea what singer-lyricist Gordon Downie is on about with declarations like “there’s nothing uglier than a man hitting his stride,” but the sheer dynamics of the tune put it on a rush-inducing par with the group’s most memorable songs, “Nautical Disaster” and “50 Mission Cap”.

When the band takes a mellower tack, as on the whimsical “Bobcaygeon”, it recalls the laid-back tone of the vibe-laced “Flamenco”, a noteworthy number from 1996’s Trouble at the Henhouse that revealed the Hip in a delicate new light.

As for Phantom Power’s heavily aired first single, “Poets”, it took a few listens, but eventually its slinky guitar interplay, stealthy bass throb, trash-can drumming, and decidedly weird lyrics won me over.

Such is the entrancing influence of Canada’s guitar-rock kings.

To hear the full audio of my interviews with Gord Downie from 1989, 1992, and 1996–and my conversation with Hip guitarist Rob Baker from 1997 as well–subscribe to my Patreon page.

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