When Canadian classic-rock stations have big holiday-weekend countdowns of the greatest songs ever, the Tragically Hip turn up often enough to sit alongside Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones at the top of the We-Are-Not-Worthy Hierarchy. The Kingston, Ontario, band came along in the late ’80s, specializing at first in a kind of pseudoapocalyptic blues-rock that had singer Gord Downie closing his eyes in every video and tracing little circles in the air with his hand like Ronee Blakley in Nashville. Affected as all get-out, but they got better, and on 1998’s “Fireworks”—a two-minute tour through loss-of-virginity, Kremlinology, and the indelible genius of Bobby Orr circa 1972—they hit upon a whirlwind synthesis of jangle and drone that made me want to close my eyes and trace little circles in the air with my hand.
”My Music at Work,” lead single from the group’s new album, Music @ Work, is a half-step slower than “Fireworks” but just as chaotic and beautiful. Part rumor (“No matter what you heard,” Downie clarifies, bringing to mind Madonna’s “Haven’t you heard?” from “Beautiful Stranger”) and part imagistic reverie, it’s a meditation on exactly what the title implies: the mysterious process by which music gets inside your head, especially when it’s late, you’re alone, and “outside, the darkness lurks.” Downie used to work laboriously to convey that he was in the grip of thoughts and feelings so profound he could hardly find words for them. It doesn’t seem like work anymore—when he casually sneaks some mock-operatic “la-la-la”s into “My Music at Work” ‘s middle break, his gnosticism has the ring of truth.