Review Summary: John has the best words
John K Samson is, for my money, the finest lyricist of our time. As hyperbolic and divisive of an opening statement as that surely is, how many other contemporary songwriters have had their lyrics studied by English Literature undergraduates or spent a term mentoring music students at a major university? Whimsical, prescient and often downright heartbreaking, John’s songs have consistently been emotional and immensely relatable without ever coming across as soppy or pretentious. He’s managed this with some seemingly ridiculous concepts, like writing from the perspective of a cat with a depressed owner (more on him later) or exploring the relationship between Edna Krabappel and Principal Skinner.
Of course, the lyrical prowess of a songwriter is entirely subjective and cannot be proven scientifically, although both with The Weakerthans and as a solo artist Samson has, for nearly 20 years, penned words of a quality one simply does not come across in modern popular music. Disappointingly, the news that The Weakerthans were on hiatus broke last year and with the Winnipeg rockers now ‘cryogenically frozen’ Samson has opted to continue the solo career he launched four years ago with Provincial
. Although Winter Wheat
is released under his own name, Samson had assistance from wife Christine Fellows and a couple of Weakerthans members, with the general feeling being that he wrote these songs with his full band in mind.
If the circumstances behind the album’s conception are slightly murky, it’s quality is immediately clear. The title track begins with ‘woke up in a parking lot, air mattress gone flat, the sun selecting targets for the shadows to attack’ and a similar poetic clarity informs the rest of the album. The core message of the song, that the world is good enough because we have to accept its flaws, exudes the kind of warmth Samson’s tunes have always possessed in abundance. On ‘Postdoc Blues’ the companion of a struggling PHD student reassures him that they ‘believe in you and your powerpoints’. This is a classic Samson line that shouldn’t work but really does.
Elsewhere, ‘Oldest Oak at Brookside’ is an upbeat track that simply celebrates a particularly old tree and ‘Fellow Traveller’ examines the life of Anthony Blunt, a British spy and Soviet double agent whose activities were publicly revealed in 1979, prompting a media storm. Samson has always had a knack for putting himself in the shoes of interesting characters real or fake and presenting a convincing look at the world through their eyes. ‘Fellow Traveller’ is another fine example of this. Another single/pre-released track of note is ‘Alpha Adept’ which features some of the most interesting instrumentation on the album.
Incidentally, the accompaniments to John K’s vocals are the only real gripe about this release. It’s all very stripped back, probably more so than Provincial, ditching the electric guitar for an acoustic. Unfortunately, more than a few of the songs aren’t all that interesting as compositions. The drums and guitars are quite nondescript, and while dismissing any of Samson’s work for its straightforward instrumentation is to spectacularly miss the point, without Stephen Carrol’s guitar leads there just seems to be a little something missing. Songs like ‘Carrie Ends the Call’ and ‘Quiz Night at Looky Lou’s’ are very sparse, the second of them being almost entirely spoken word, and they can sometimes struggle to hold the attention.
This review cannot finish on a negative however. The only natural way to end it seems to be with Virtute, that famous cat from previous Weakerthans albums Reconstruction Site
and Reunion Tour
. The saga to this point has taken us through Virtute’s cries for attention directed at his depressed, substance abusing owner, prompting his eventual crushing decision to run away and being unable to remember how to return home during the depths of a cold winter. In something of a surprise twist, Samson has decided to give fans the happy ending they didn’t know they wanted. In what might be a first for an album review, I will now place a spoiler alert here and urge anyone who hasn’t yet heard this album and doesn’t want to know what happens to stop reading now. First, ‘17th Street Treatment Centre’ traces the owner’s recovery from addiction, wonderfully explaining that ‘on the 21st day, the sun didn’t hate me, the food wasn’t angry, the bed didn’t sigh’. Finally, ‘Virtute at Rest’ describes how the feline lives on in the memory of his owner, inspiring him to stay straight on the road to recovery. It’s a beautiful end to one of the finest song cycles you’ll ever hear.
The conclusion to Virtute’s story will be reason enough for many long-time fans to grab this record. There are plenty of other good ones too. Winter Wheat
is an album that really does exude warmth and positivity, a rare thing in indie rock and something to be cherished. With John K Samson proving that he can still write circles around nearly all of his peers, the lengthy gaps between his releases is well worth tolerating. Already, the possibility of another solo effort is an exciting prospect, even if quite a large part of me would prefer to hear the full band in action next time.