Secret Path is an adult alternative album from Gord Downie (lead singer of The Tragically Hip), released in October 2016. It was released with an accompanying graphic novel, as well as an animated made-for-TV film that aired on CBC in the same month. You can read more about the production background of the album on Wikipedia.
Secret Path tells the story of an Anishnaabe boy named Chanie Wenjack, from Marten Falls First Nation, who died in 1966 while trying to return home. He was escaping from an Indian Residential School. All of the proceeds from this album and book are being donated to the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation project.
* – Note – the above paragraph was paraphrased slightly and partially copied verbatim from the Wikipedia article I linked to.
As a preface to this review, I want to say that I’m not a “strong” music reviewer. When it comes to music, I don’t dive deep. I know what sounds I like, and occasionally lyrics stand out to me. Usually when I listen to an album, I don’t really look into the details about it beforehand.
However going into Secret Path, I was at least peripherally aware of the subject matter. I knew that it dealt with an aboriginal boy who died in the 1960s, but didn’t really explore it much further than that. It was always one of those “Oh I’d like to listen / read that, but maybe later” kind of things.
That really influenced my listening to this album. I tried to focus on the lyrics when I listened to the album, but personally I have a hard time doing that. For me, music is more about the overall sound and like I said, I don’t normally pinpoint on what’s being said (with a few exceptions here and there).
Knowing the subject matter, the album gave me a distinct atmospheric feeling. Overall, the album gave me a feeling of being alone. The first couple of tracks start out on a bit of a positive note – Chanie sets out to escape the residential school, and looking forward to going home. But the rest of the album gradually descends into a gloomy tone, as Chanie faces increasing hardships.
Most of the instruments on the album are guitar and piano. I think what really helps create this mental image is Downie’s voice, which is best described on this album as strained at times and haunting. Everything fits together so well to tell this story.
In a way though, I think I should have listened to this album while reading the accompanying graphic novel. I definitely will still pick it up and read it, but I think it would have helped me even more in understanding what was going on in the music.
Still, the album is technically very well done. And I think that it does exactly what it sets out to do: tell the story of Chanie Wenjack and his ill-fated journey home. You’re not going to hear these songs on the radio, and that’s OK. That’s not what this is meant to be. In one sense, it’s a bit of a disappointment that it might not get widespread mainstream attention (though I contend that since its release, it’s received a LOT of mainstream reviews, so it has received attention); but on the other hand, I appreciate that this project wasn’t undertaken with commercial success as the first thought.
I read a Pitchfork review of the album that Downie was approached by Broken Social Scene member Kevin Drew to record an album, and that Downie didn’t have any material – but he was writing about Chanie. I don’t know why, but I get the idea of this tragedy nagging away at Gord Downie until he could get it out to the world.
I definitely recommend listening to the album, and I hope you follow my example by picking up the graphic novel and read that, too.