A fitting tribute to one of our great poets, Al Purdy
VARIOUS ARTISTS “THE AL PURDY SONGBOOK” (BOREALIS)
“When a poet dies a lullaby still whispers faintly in the room,” sings Sarah Harmer on a song she adapted from an Al Purdy poem for this project.
Those words were certainly true in 2016, when we lost both Leonard Cohen and Gord Downie. But at the same time, the work of another great Canadian poet, who died in 2000, was echoing with a new resonance, thanks to the 2015 film “Al Purdy Was Here,” the directorial debut from former Maclean’s film critic Brian D. Johnson.
That film was a triumph on several levels: as vital Canadian cultural history, as a visually gorgeous film, as a documentary with a surprising twist, and, finally, as a catalyst for some of this country’s greatest musicians to engage with Purdy’s work. Johnson had always intended music to be a huge part of his film, and for a variety of reasons it took three years for this soundtrack of sorts to come to fruition. But it’s finally here, and it’s fabulous.
It opens with Bruce Cockburn, whom Johnson coaxed out of semi-retirement to write and record “3 Al Purdys” — which in turn became an anchor track on Cockburn’s most recent album, “Bone to Bone.” It also features one of the last things Leonard Cohen ever recorded: a recitation of “Necropsy of Love.” The parade of legends doesn’t stop there: Margaret Atwood recites “Wilderness Gothic,” Greg Keelor adapts Purdy’s poem “Woman” into “Unprovable” (“As unprovable as the sun on the other side of the world”), and Gord Downie appears not once, but twice with his highly underrated 2010 song “The East Wind,” which lifts lightly from Purdy, and a recitation of “At the Quinte Hotel,” which is a poem that “a sensitive man” such as Downie was born to read: it’s about bar fights in century-old hotels — something The Tragically Hip are more than familiar with — and about how poetry will buy you neither beer nor respect. Downie also does a striking Purdy impression at one point in the poem.
The best track here, however, goes to Downie disciple and friend Sarah Harmer, whose “Just Get Here” is not only perhaps the best melody she’s written in almost 20 years, but it summarizes the spirit of Purdy’s A-frame in Ameliasburg, Ont., in Prince Edward County, which functioned as a gathering place for generations of Canadian poets — and continues to do so, having been restored for artist residencies. (A fundraising campaign to make that possible was the catalyst for Johnson’s interest in making this film.) On top of all that, her vocal and piano performance is devastating. While Harmer fans continue to hold out for new material (which is actually coming, though long delayed), this alone compensates for the eight-year wait.
Also appearing: Doug Paisley, Snowblink, Jason Collett, Felicity Williams and Bidiniband — Dave Bidini, of course, like Downie, an enormous Purdy fan, who sampled Purdy’s voice on a 1994 Rheostatics song. If there’s any complaint with the choice of contributors, it’s that they all hail from an easy driving distance to Al’s A-frame; Purdy’s influence was felt far and wide across the Great White North, not just Ontario.
Tribute albums to musicians are often a hit-and-miss affair; this tribute to a poet, however, in which musicians were free to edit the original text to their own uses, works brilliantly. Whether or not the name Al Purdy means anything to you, see the film, listen to the music and, by all means, go back to the original texts. And say the names.
Stream: “Just Get Here” by Sarah Harmer, “Transient” by Doug Paisley, “At the Quinte Hotel” by Gord Downie
DOUG PAISLEY “STARTER HOME” (NO QUARTER)
Toronto’s Doug Paisley was one of the most promising new songwriters of this decade, with 2010s Constant Companion hailed (by me, but also many others) as an instant classic, the kind of album that actually warranted comparisons to greats like Gordon Lightfoot. These were songs of neither a young man nor an old man; these were songs that sounded like they’ve always existed. “Starter Home” is only his second album since then, however; he spent the last four years on paternity leave, and this new collection finds him firmly rooted in midlife, questioning his surroundings, his future — and other light subjects. The arrangements are gentle and unassuming, never distracting from Paisley’s deft acoustic guitar work or his warm-sweater voice and storytelling. Blue Rodeo’s Bazil Donovan shows up on bass, as does Paisley’s go-to choice for harmonies, Jennifer Castle. Doug Paisley will never be the type to be hyped, but his records are the ones you’ll put on at the end of a long week, the songs echoing conversations with old friends.
Stream: “No Way to Know,” “Easy Money,” “Waiting”