The disastrous thrills of "Northwest Passage"
3 min read

The disastrous thrills of "Northwest Passage"

Caveat: I am not Canadian, which means that I'm not strictly allowed to listen to "Northwest Passage," Stan Rogers' 1981 masterpiece and alternative Canadian national anthem. For most of my life, this was fine with me, as a) I'd never heard of the song and b) I have an aversion to folk music that – more than my early gender feelings, or the miserable long-distance closeted relationship that kept me online and weeping at all hours – made me such a notable misfit at my women's college. Recently, though, I accepted that my gender is "polar exploration guy," and my long-distance relationship is "with polar exploration," and so I might as well bite the cap off "Northwest Passage." What I found inside was something sludgy, bittersweet, peculiar; something smarter than I expected, and more politically fucked; something which hangs on a light pastiche that doesn't care to cover what's underneath, like whipped cream on a granite tombstone. It's a fascinating song. Here it is:

"Northwest Passage"  is simply recorded: Rogers sings the verses alone and a cappella, in a vibrating baritone. For the chorus, he's joined by a group of male backup singers. Their loose harmony gestures at being a casual singalong, but in fact is as artfully layered and styled as a laugh track. The whole song is like this, embracing sloppiness strictly as an aesthetic: a bespoke fisherman's sweater. The style of the verses (which tell a simple autobiographical story of driving across Canada, thinking about dead explorers) and chorus (in which Rogers longs to follow his heroes "just once" through the Northwest Passage) is a similar balance of studied artfulness. The song is a feat of style. It simply doesn't care to pretend that its authenticity comes from spontaneity.

"Northwest Passage" begins with its massive chorus -- from moment one, it's telling, not showing. Like a bridal march, it wants to resonate before it's even made a sound, because like a bridal march, the stakes are enormous:

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea

This is, of course, some wild English. How do we get, grammatically, from "tracing" to "to make?" How does Rogers get away with rhyming the word "sea" with itself? Does he want to take the Passage in order to follow the pointing hand of John Franklin, or is the structure more like the "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" of Alfred Lord Tennyson in his "Ulysses"? (Tennyson married Franklin's niece; these lines from "Ulysses" were written in 1912 on Robert Scott's tomb in Antarctica; Rogers, in his old-fashioned language – his neo-Victorian "I would" to mean "I want to" – is connecting to a polar literary tradition that traffics extensively in classicism and nostalgia.)

Rogers understands his art thoroughly. For all but experimental songwriters, songwriting is about words, not sentences. It doesn't matter whether a sentence makes sense, provided you can place its words along the right joints of the melody. That's how he manages the business with the two uses of "sea," which really do hit differently from each other. The first one questions; the second one crowns. It's also how he continues to get away with historical weirdness, like his infamous line about "in the footsteps of great Kelso, where his 'sea of flowers' began." The quotation is audible, no matter that it's something Rogers infamously conflated from a couple of different sources, and got the name wrong to boot.

"Northwest Passage" has a peculiar relationship with time – from the style of the backup singers, who often come in a sharp fragment of a second too early or late, to the apocalyptic language ("Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again") that Rogers selects to describe the prosaic act of driving, to the overall theme, which loads hundreds of years of history into the sound mixer and plays each one simultaneously. Regally paced, and yet composed entirely of hooks, the song appears to be roughly one minute and also roughly twelve minutes long. Even that weird use of tenses ties into the sense of temporal flux.  

What matters, genuinely, is the vibe. Rogers knows vibe. He is not afraid of vibe, and you can hear him trusting himself to it as "Northwest Passage" swells and shrinks, a wooden ship passing from a humid South to a dry North. This makes the song politically repellant in moments, because vibe tends to draw on an artist's sense of the universal, which means Rogers places his explorers in "wild and savage" land, calls them "the first men through this way." He writes about them the way he would have learned about them as a white schoolboy.

The reason he gets away with it, mostly, is the same way he pulls off a rock-star-on-the-road song that isn't self-pitying and inexpressive: he explicitly makes the explorers' story one of quixotry and death, something you don't do unless you're driven to it by internal forces you don't understand. Rogers' own death – on tour, in a burning plane, young and terrified – is not made more resonant by the song, or vice versa. It does, however, bring home the sense that he knew what he was talking about – what he was risking – by devoting his life to perfecting his art.