The Tragically Hip – Fully Completely (20th anniversary vinyl reissue)

By the time The Tragically Hip released Fully Completely in 1992, they were already stars. Between the releases of their first two full-length albums (Up To Here and Road Apples), the Hip had already built up a loyal fanbase in Canada and made a few inroads into the U.S. and Europe as well but, in the grand scheme of things, they were still just a well-respected college rock band, at most. They were able to tour comfortably, but they still needed to be on tour a lot in order to LIVE comfortably. Fully Completely marked a turning point for the band in that regard; with their third full-length album, the Hip broke through into every quadrant of Canadian pop culture.

With Fully Completely, EVERYONE in Canada became acquainted with the Hip, because the themes were accessible to everyone. The band focused more on Canadian images with songs about Canadian explorers like Jacques Cartier and Toronto Maple Leafs alumnus Bill Barilko, locations like the prairies, and products like Canadian beer (the ‘Fifty’ in “Fifty Mission Cap” refers to Labatt 50 ale). Needless to say, the focus of view on Fully Completely was a bit more narrow but, for Canadian kids, the thematic turn was a revelation – in the Hip, they had found a group that thought like them, talked like them and saw a world they knew, rocked hard and had just enough poetry in their collective soul to make the songs both welcoming and habitable. It was genius.

Not only was it genius, but it was respected in its own time. Fans who had been won by The Tragically Hip, Up To Here and Road Apples as well as new listeners who were looking for something of their own fell in love with Fully Completely because it rocked hard and felt familiar. The album yielded six singles and got The Tragically Hip in front of every person in Canada. This was the album which signified that The Tragically Hip weren’t just a band, they were a cultural movement. Because of that, the fact that the album has never before been released on vinyl (sign of the times: the first release was on cassette, according to allmusic.com) is a little unbelievable – but happily that fact is remedied by this new, remastered, twentieth anniversary pressing of the album.

The moment “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” kicks off to open the album, listeners will have no trouble falling into Fully Completely (either again, or for the first time). There, the rock power which had previously driven songs like “Little Bones” and “Cordelia” on Road Apples and “Blow At High Dough” and “Boots Or Hearts” on Up To Here is present but honed and tempered with the confidence that the band gained from the positive reception of their previous releases. There’s an almost cavalier attitude about how the song just rolls out, and also a brashness in the lyric sheet (check out Gord Downie’s delivery of lines like “Watch the band through a bunch of dancers/ quickly into the unknown” and “Courage – my word/ It didn’t come, it doesn’t matter”) which can easily hook a listener of just the right mind and is really representative of the band. Three albums in, The Hip knows who they are and what they’re doing, and that spirit is infectious.

That infectious energy continues over into “Looking For A Place To Happen” as it always has, but longtime fans will get their first inkling of the remastering job applied to this vinyl reissue there and, when it comes, fans will be shocked right off their feet by it. Right at the beginning of the song, Rob Baker’s Stratocaster growls out a raucous warm-up but, where once the sound seemed as though it was captured in a large, high ceiling-ed room, the natural reverb which was present before has been scaled back, which gets that guitar right in listeners’ collective face. NOW it feels urgent and NOW pulses begin to race involuntarily before Gord Downie gets to the lyric about famous French-Canadian explorers which might have sounded hokey, were it not treated as well as it is (“Jacques Cartier! Right this way/ Put your coat up on the bed/ Hey man – you’ve got the real bum’s eye for clothes!”), but it actually sounds like marching orders in this context.

That power endures beyond the song into the utterly raucous “Hundredth Meridian” (which, for those who don’t know, passes through Manitoba, Nunavut, both Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas – so the song is geographically accurate) which also gives listeners who have never seen The Hip live a taste of Downie’s rapturous but articulate vocal delivery as it happens on the live stage. The bridge of “Hundredth Meridian” is where Downie slips off his leash (right where the lyrics begin, “If I die of vanity, promise me/ Promise me they bury me/ Someplace I don’t wanna be”) but, rather than coming off as rudderless, the singer’s poignant delivery will completely disarm listeners and just leave them begging for more. The rest of the A-side keeps the dramatic action moving through the simmering and seething cuts “Pigeon Camera” and “Lionized” before closing the side with the explosive dramatism of “Locked In The Trunk Of A Car.”

While the title may seem a little anti-climactic, “Locked In The Trunk Of A Car” is the definition of an epic. It was a while in gestation too; longtime fans know the lyric sheet sprang from an improvised bridge done during live performances of “Highway Girl” [the easiest live version to find is the one on the bootleg entitled Live From The Roxy and Elsewhere], but this more polished version really focused on the darkness in the song’s protagonist. Lines which once seemed funny (like “I know a place, it’s dark and rotten/ A place where the police helicopters would never spot it/ I destroyed the map I so carefully dotted”) and almost silly now drip with a darkness which is more than a little unnerving, but makes for a perfect coupling with lines like “They don’t know how old I am/ They found armor in my belly/ From the sixteenth century/ Conquistador, I think” – even if the continuity is a little less-than-perfect. Likewise, the scruffy, ragged performances put in by guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois make for a brilliant experience as the going gets darker and more scattered, culminating with a total meltdown as Downie howls, “Let me out” at the close of the song. As “Locked In The Trunk Of A Car” fades out and the needle lifts, listeners will find they’re out of breath. In the span of just six songs, The Hip have taken listeners to places they never thought they’d see, and drawn emotions out of them that they never thought a rock record would have the power to inspire. It’s an incredible experience – and there’s still another half the album to go.

With the fact that Fully Completely‘s A-side is such a monumental specimen in mind, that the B-side begins with what Gord Downie has since dubbed, “The battlecry for mediocrity” (“We’ll Go Too”) adds a much-needed bit of levity to the proceedings and allows the band to lighten up in demeanor without having to pull a punch sonically. Even with that said though, that isn’t intended to imply that “We’ll Go Too” isn’t a long way from the rest of the record. The song opens with a flanged guitar figure which knocks out some chunky, boisterous chords and strikes an impressive contrast to the album’s A-side, and then Gord Downie chimes in with a lyric so off-handed, it’s unbelievable. Lines like “What can you do? They’ve all gone, we’ll go too” would be infuriating in most any other context, but it’s a great foil here and really plays well against the A-side of the album.

After that break in form too, it gives the band the freedom to escape the darkness which dominated the A-side of the album; while they do revisit that sound for “Fifty Mission Cap,” Gord Downie derails the serious potential about the song with the words, “I stole this from a hockey card/I keep tucked up under my Fifty Mission Cap/ I worked it in to look like that” before heading out to the prairies for a relaxing, fluffy sojourn in “Wheat Kings” and then only starting to whip themselves back into a frenzy at the side’s end with “The Wherewithal” and “Eldorado.”

Even at that though, the resolution has already been reached and the more aggressive tendencies exhibited by those last two songs are overshadowed by the lighter and weirder songs which precede them. In that regard, it’s hard to believe that the songwriting is so remarkable on Fully Completely that two hard rocking numbers at the close of the record are overshadowed by a tranquil acoustic number and the battlecry for mediocrity, but that is undoubtably the case.

Listening back to Fully Completely now, it’s easy to understand why the album hit the way it did: The Tragically Hip’s growth was cumulative through their debut EP, Up To Here and Road Apples, and an explosion like Fully Completely was inevitable. While true, that reasoning is also too simple. Fully Completely remains timeless and vivid, and is a milestone of a caliber that even The Hip themselves (let alone anyone else) have not reached since. The music is awesome and absolutely deserves the treatment of this vinyl reissue. Fans are encouraged to treat themselves and get this reissue; it’s worth it.

(MCA/Interscope/Universal Music)

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Bill Adams

Bill Adams is Editor-in-Chief of Ground Control Mag.