Battle of the Nudes (Album)
While the occupation that Gord Downie lists on his passport is “musician”, he could just as easily have cited “songwriter”, “poet”, “video director”, or even, existentially speaking, “restless spirit”. “I enjoy the process of writing to a fault,” he admits. “I love doing the work. I love solving the puzzle.”
When songwriting is in your blood, it’s impossible to stop the flow. For Battle of the Nudes, his second solo album and the first on MapleMusic Recordings, Downie channels a waterfall of ideas into a 37-minute sonic cauldron that swirls with roughage and delicacy. As Downie puts it on “Pillform #2”, an indictment of how books may have lost their impact in the age of video-spoonfed information, “Bigger dream, bigger screens, bigger feelings are planned.” In short, Battle of the Nudes is a revealing portrait of the artist @ work.
The album title’s duplicitous nature fits in with The Tragically Hip frontman’s multifaceted oeuvre. “I saw the title in a newspaper I was reading while on tour in Cleveland last year,” he recounts. “I was looking at the gallery and museum section, and one of the upcoming exhibits was called ‘Battle of the Nudes’. It didn’t say much else, so I can only presume that it was an exploration of the nude in painting. The constant layers of the title stayed with me, and the idea of transparency, of fighting with no clothes on – literally, figuratively, and spiritually – very much held an appeal. So much about ‘The Battle’ is in perception.”
Nudes unfolds from a whisper to a roar and back again, chronicling the post-punk ping-pong match between growing up and growing apart (the wistful opening track “Into the Night”), identity both real and imagined (the cinematic blast of “Figment”), the art of disengaging and reconnecting (the fuzzed-out cowpunk of “11th Fret”, the haunting “More Me Less You”), and the outright denial of indisputable culpability (the deceptively bouncy singalong lead single, “Pascal’s Submarine”).
Nudes had a long gestation period, albeit in short, fruitful bursts stretched over a year. Five days of intense recording at The Gas Station on Toronto Island in May 2001 was followed much later by five more fertile days at The Bathouse in Bath, Ontario in May 2002. In the interim, more than half of the songs were road-tested during the nine shows that Downie and his band of merry men and one woman performed in support of his first solo album, Coke Machine Glow, in the summer of 2001. All of his tour mates appear on Nudes and plan to tour with Downie again this summer. The lineup consists of Dale Morningstar (guitar, pump organ, and other various kitchen-sink music-making items), Dave Clark (drums, percussion, tuba, et al), and Dr. Pee (keyboards) from The Dinner Is Ruined; Josh Finlayson (bass, acoustic and electric guitars, background vocals) of The Skydiggers; and Julie Doiron (bass and background vocals), ex-Eric’s Trip and Wooden Stars and a solo artist in her own right.
The band feels privileged to be able to work with Downie. “As a lyricist, Gord stands alone,” acknowledges Finlayson. “He’s pretty unique in what he’s doing and how he’s doing it. I find that a lot of his stuff is subtle that way. I’ll hear something once, and then it’ll grow on me – that’s a sign of a really great songwriter.” Not only that, chimes in Clark, but “Gord’s really got a lot of love that he puts into his work. He has a lot of honesty and soul, and he genuinely cares about the people he plays with. I respect that.” Echoes Morningstar, “His songs are so melodic, but there’s a definite bite to them. And as a collaborator, Gord gives everyone the green light. He encourages you to go further out there, to bring out what’s inside you.”
Such collaborative freedom is well in evidence on “Steeplechase” (a “simple song about complex creatures,” according to Downie), especially in the cacophonous middle section that sounds like a cross between the ascendant denouement of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and the relentless din of The Velvet Underground’s “The Black Angel’s Death Song”. “Steeplechase” is borne out of a direct segue from “Who by Rote”, a rhythmic tone poem that abruptly transforms into an exploration of scraping feedback.
And then there’s the two versions of “Pillform” that close the record, the purest examples of Downie flying in the face of convention. “One version has a beauty to its lightness [“#2”], the other one is really heavy [“#1″],” catalogs Morningstar. “But it works.” On “Pillform #2”, Downie can be heard laughing his way through the phrase “through these last 10,000 years”; rather than punching in a cleaner reading of the line, Downie elected to leave it as is. “I’m really glad he chose to keep that,” agrees Morningstar. “It has such an honesty to it, you know?” Explains Downie, “For every song there’s an anti-song. And one day you wake up and say, ‘Hmm, I’m not in school anymore. I don’t have to check with anyone that it’s ok to do it this way.'”
Downie is looking forward to taking Nudesout on the road for an extended jaunt this summer. “Performance is the truest expression of what we do,” he says. “It’s the quickest path to the heart of a song.” His bandmates concur. “It’s all about intention,” points out Clark. “If it’s coming from the heart, you’re going to make something good. I like that we’re able to take the perimeters of songs, stretch them, and just improvise on them every night.” Observes Finlayson, “You don’t often make connections with people musically the way we have, and that’s something we take advantage of onstage.” Adds Morningstar, “Gord wants to have fun and explore areas he may not have been to yet. Who knows what’ll come out from under that hat, or toque, next?”
Battle of the Nudes is the next evolutionary step for the restless creative force that is Gord Downie. “I’m interested in doing anything that teaches me something,” he concludes. “As a result, I’ve found that I’m writing more than ever. In fact, the day after I mastered this record, I was already back to writing with The Hip. Ultimately, what I want to do is more. I want to get better.” Get Nude along with Gord and see how it unveils the intricate layers of a singular artist – literally, figuratively, and spiritually. He’s not a dabbler or a hobbyist: he’s hardcore to the core.
AKA “The Anagramming Cartographer”
Gord Downie and Dale Morningstar with Dave Clark & Josh Finlayson
Recorded & Mixed by:
Dale Morningstar at The Gas Station, Toronto
Except Into The Night recorded and mixed by Ken J. Friesen with DM and GD
Christmastime In Toronto recorded and mixed by KJF, 11th Fret recorded by KJF
Steeplechase mixed by KJF with DM and GD
Pillform #2 recorded by KJF at The Bathouse, Bath, assisted by Aaron Holmberg
Mastered by Joao Carvalho at Umbrella Sound Mastering, Toronto
Dave Clark – drums/bg vocals/congas/tongue drum/tambourines/B3 pedals
Julie Doiron – bg vocals/bass/ electric gtr/piano/bells
Gord Downie – vocals/acoustic & electric gtr/piano/bg vocals/chestscratcher shovel
Josh Finlayson – bass/acoustic and electric gtr/bg vocals
The Woodchoppin’ Horns
Bryden Baird, Trumpet | Jay Baird, Baritone Sax | Jeff Burke, Bassoon
Scott Cameron, Alto Sax | Dave Clark, Tuba | Alfons Fear, Trumpet | Brodie West, Alto Sax
Figment, DC, DM and The Woodchoppin’ Horns
DC and the WH’s, Steeplechase, the WH’s
Bagpipe sample in Pillform #1, Henry Muth of Guh
Cover Painting by Jon Claytor | Photography Cover & Traycard By Richard Beland
Art Direction and Design by Megan Oldfield for Coolaide