“Myself and His Words”
A Tribute to The Weakerthans
words by jordan gorsuch
How then am I so different from the first men through this way?
Like them, I left a settled life, I threw it all away.
To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men.
To find there but the road back home again.
The above excerpt is a song from one of Canada’s most prized musicians, Stan Rogers. “Northwest Passage” is a powerful song that invokes images of Canada’s geography (the Fraser River and Davis Strait) while also detailing the painful and fruitless endeavor of discovering the Northwest Passage set out by explorer Sir John Franklin. Rogers crafts the song around a duality of his own personal journey with Franklin’s, and ends back where he began. It’s all a circle. The track is all a capella, allowing the listener to bask in the smooth harmonies of Rogers and company in a vacuum of sound. The words carry even more weight, the weight of a country’s history felt in our hearts and personified by a very human struggle. Rogers reminds me of a certain Canadian contemporary musician that mines the human experience out of any situation. John K. Samson is a Canadian musician from Winnipeg, and from the ashes of a fiery punk band, formed one of the greatest Canadian rock bands of all time: The Weakerthans.
Which leads me to the great difficulty of writing this piece – I don’t think my words are worthy of this band. Writing this piece has re-ignited my passion for the band but I would be lying if I didn’t feel like it was the metaphorical equivalent of bashing my skull against a brick wall. What can be written that accurately attains the warm glow of wonder that “Aside” brings? Or how about the seeping sincerity found on “Sun In An Empty Room,” a track that does Death Cab’s sound better than the actual band. I’d be remiss not to mention “Plea From A Cat Named Virtue,” a song that captures the harmful cycle of sorrow and self-defeating prophecies better than most prose I have come across – oh, and it’s from the perspective of an owner’s cat. Samson just heart-breakingly closed the book on this saga on his latest and wonderful solo album, “Winter Wheat.” The pointless concrete of strip malls overtakes farmland on the thoughtful and subtle “None of Above,” where the revelation of our pointless platitudes and thoughtless questions hits like a 16-wheeler. The point I’m attempting to make is that all of these gems span the entire four-album discography that The Weakerthans have accrued. They’re a band that has so much to say that I don’t know if you can say anything about them.
After leaving his punk band Propagandhi behind, John K. Samson recruited bassist John Sutton and drummer Jason Tait, both were members of the Winnipeg punk scene. In 1997 the band released their first album to a positive reception. The band’s introspective and thoughtful compositions mixed with Samson’s poet laureate worthy lyrics made for a strong debut. Fallow is not without its growing pains, however. The band’s mixture of ballads and punk anthems does not gel together as well as it will on later albums. It probably does not help that Samson did not seem too worried about escaping the shadow of Propagandhi because Fallow includes two tracks (albeit reworked) from his former punk band. This does not mean it’s a bad album, far from it. The one-two punk punch of “Diagnosis” and “Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist” is dizzying, as is the sobering sincerity of “The Last Last One.” This is also the album where the band plays it mostly straight, electing to focus more on the melancholy that pervades their discography. “Leash” finds Samson day-dreaming about heroin and comparing drunk driving to “some form of soft suicide.” The hooks found on “Greatest Hits Collection” and “Anchorless” still roll around my head for days at a time, as does the dying bird with “elegant plumage and frantic black eyes” that haunts the acoustic track between them.
Left And Leaving finds the band coming completely into their own, honing the sound that Fallow so deftly introduced the listener to. Guitarist Stephen Carroll joined the band to make them a four-piece, the album begins with a more fleshed out composition than anything found on their previous output; light banjo strums and bass runs complement the use of dishware in the percussion. Samson’s lyrical output is even more refined with cutting lines about “free fake smiles” while also doubling down on mundane but electrifying imagery like the puke-green sofa in his childhood home or the electric razor his father gave him when he turned 17. “Watermark” highlights the band’s pop sensibilities while “Pamphleteer” chiefly illustrates their folk tendencies while Samson’s lyrics and infectious crooning ties them together. “Pamphleteer” in particular highlights the subtly of a band that could be quite politically charged. “A specter’s haunting Albert Street,” is a reference to Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and the song features a political activist that is tired of standing in shitty weather only to be ignored, causing him to give up: “All that I could never overcome.” This sort of subtly and emotional depth is what makes Samson one of my all-time favorite lyricists.
“Without Mythologies” begins with low, earthly percussion and bright, soft guitar strums. Samson integrates some of myths greatest and tragic couples: Orpheus/Eurydice, Alpheus/Arethusa, and Baucis/Philemon. Even if you are not familiar with the stories that cement these characters, Samson delicately pays tribute to them while forming a powerful and emotional tale of his own.
After accidentally failing a trial in the Underworld, Orpheus accidentally turns the love of his life into a statue; making this poetic line even more heartbreaking: “If I could I would make you a raging river, with angry rapids, supplied with rain, so you could always meander and forever be able to run away without contending with myths wrongly interpreted with pain.” It’s a beautiful song, and one that understandably casts Samson into the ranks of other literary songwriters like Kate Bush, Leonard Cohen, and especially John Darnielle.
The title track found on the album is my absolute favorite The Weakerthans song. It possesses all of the attributes that makes them so legendary: absolutely breathtaking lyrics, top-notch instrumentation, sickly-sweet melodies, and it transports you to another time entirely. It’s the sonic equivalent of a window, letting you peer into your past and future, into new corners of the world entirely. The song itself is about Winnipeg and represents its cold winters and its precarious existence: “the city’s still breathing (but barely it’s true) through buildings like missing teeth, the sidewalks are watching me think about you.” Perhaps no band captures their hometown existence better, and Samson is channeling the feeling of watching people that are “leaving” your hometown and those that are “left.” There’s something else that happens in my brain when I listen to this song, and I doubt it is intentional. I feel like I’m being transported through time and space, I think of myself sledding on my Gram’s hill next to her barn, snow and air licking at my face. I think of my past self. I look at those pictures capturing a moment for eternity and look at my younger self and smile. That isn’t me. That isn’t me. Not anymore. That is the most stupendously bittersweet feeling in the world.
In 2003, The Weakerthans perfected their formula and released their most successful record, Reconstruction Site. It’s an album that mixed their pop, punk, and folk influences in a perfect concoction while Samson was able to dig even deeper into thought-provoking lyrics with an even wider scope. Their melancholic leanings still pervade, but this was now a band unafraid to utilize levity and unorthodox subject matter. It works like gangbusters. “I want to call a request through heating vents, and hear them answered with a whispered no,” is the first line of the album and it is absolutely perfect. “(Manifest)” and all songs with parentheses that appears in the album are written in sonnet form, another tip of the hat to his love of literature. “The Reasons” might just be their most straightforward pop song with an earworm hook over bustling guitars: “I know you might roll your eyes at this, but I’m so glad that you exist.” It’s utterly sincere, and self-aware while keying the listener onto the band’s new appreciation for feel-good subject matter.
The title-track oozes warmth and western-influenced guitars while featuring some of Samson’s most uplifting lyrics: “Throw away my misery, it never meant that much to me, it never sent a get-well card.” It’s a song that makes me nostalgic for a past that I’ve never had. A powerful trick to play, and a sleight of hand that The Weakerthans’ best tracks are capable of performing. “(Hospital Vespers)” continues the story started with “(Manifest)” and is a jarring, eerie portrait into a hospital visit and the pleasure that stems from small gestures when one is dying. “One Great City!” is a cheeky tribute to Winnipeg and the band’s love/hate relationship with their hometown. “The Prescience of Dawn” is a half-hearted rebellion against being the Modern Man, a droning office job looms over the protagonist, and the snooze button is his best friend. He romanticizes other lives, he writes other fictions, desperate to escape the hold of society’s expectations. The track concludes with a fiery guitar solo and an extended instrumental section (which is uncommon for the band). “A borrowed book, that check you didn’t sign, the tools to be believed with be beloved,” hammers home the eventual conclusion of the trilogy of tracks dealing with death. “(Past-Due)” illustrates the calm and mundane fall-out after a loved one passes on; there are loose ends that will never be snipped, beginnings that will never be finished. Death just happens, and it’s up to the ones left behind to reconstruct.
Their final album is the definition of an album forged in winter and to be listened to after ice has cloistered the windshield of your car, and the buzz of the holidays has long faded, leaving you in a perpetual inertia of snow and darkness. Reunion Tour features an eccentric cast of characters – an alcoholic in a curling club, a far too intelligent cat, and Sasquatch himself. “Tournament of Hearts” is a reference to the annual Canadian women’s curling championship. What makes The Weakerthans so uniquely tied to their country is how they can utilize a national pastime as a metaphor for a failed relationship. Curling is about perfect cooperation, giving and receiving equally – something that without perfect equilibrium can bring everything crashing down. “Night Windows” is a quietly sad song about walking down the street (a common practice in this band’s discography) and suddenly seeing a deceased loved one. “Remember how I’m sorry that I miss the way it could be,” is simply stated, but is possesses a profound sadness.
It can feel a little disheartening to hear the band conclude on a message as devastating as “Utilities,” especially when their previous album was so uplifting. Yet, that is just human nature. There are no quick fixes, no overnight changes in our philosophies or how we see the world. We are stuck on an endless seesaw of ever-shifting emotions. “I just wish I were a toothbrush, or a solder gun, make me something…somebody can use,” Samson croons over jittery electronics and shimmering guitar strums. “Guess our wishes don’t do dishes, or brake repairs,” here he lists practical endeavors that only get done through work. He feels like he contributes nothing, and then feels overcome when he realizes that the tools we surround ourselves with are useless without our contribution. It’s a poignant song, and a fitting end to a band that has charted the rollercoaster ride of examining human nature in its unlikeliest places. There are no simple answers. I can be nostalgic for the days when I was younger, sledding on snow-covered hills and building great, brightly-colored structures with my child-sized blocks…but I can’t go back. I can view other worlds through the windows of Samson’s lyrics but I can’t interact with them. I just have myself and his words. That’s enough.
‘Winter Wheat’ by John K Samson is out now.
Read our interview with him here