John K. Samson
Winter Wheat


4.0
excellent

Review

by AngryJohnny USER (7 Reviews)
October 20th, 2016 | 57 replies


Release Date: 2016 | Tracklist

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.



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user ratings (54)
Chart.
3.7
great
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Comments:Add a Comment 
AngryJohnny
October 20th 2016


929 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I know this isn't quite out yet but it's been streaming for over a week so plz don't accuse me of not listening to it enough.

Feedback welcome as always, and this is definitely worth repeated listens.

ashcrash9
October 20th 2016


3080 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Great review, glad to see some love for this.

Astral Abortis
October 20th 2016


6745 Comments


This one disappointed me. It's too stripped back instrumentally. The programmed drums begin to grate after a while. And the songwriting just doesn't captivate me to support the lyrics. Provincial was much better for all those things.

Astral Abortis
October 20th 2016


6745 Comments


Although for me, 'Quiz Night at Looky Lou's' is one of the best tracks here instrumentally, it's really beautifully done, but the issue with that track for me is how weird the lyrics are, the whole "singing with my mind" thing just felt really forced and lame.

AngryJohnny
October 21st 2016


929 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I guess I just don't like spoken word stuff generally, that's why I can't behind that one.

I do think the stripped back nature of this means it loses a little something, but I don't think it has a strong negative effect. This is on par with Provincial for me, but behind all Weakerthans albums except Fallow.

Point1
October 22nd 2016


618 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Vampire Alberta Blues is such an awesome song. I kind of wish that had been the single, or maybe the second single.

AdolfChrist
October 22nd 2016


21631 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

yes, the words are awesome. The Weakerthans never had much interesting instrumentation either though, thats why i like them but cant love them. same seems to go with his solo stuff.

Digging: Vulture (DE) - Ghastly Waves & Battered Graves

Aids
October 25th 2016


24459 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

this is a Weakerthans album in everything but name. He got the rhythm section for most of it, and he always wrote everything anyway.



I don't think the drums are programmed, that's just how that guy sounds.

Aids
October 25th 2016


24459 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

way better than Provincial



which was awesome

Astral Abortis
October 25th 2016


6745 Comments


The drums sound 100% programmed to me but I could be wrong, either way they don't sound great. I don't see how this is better than Provincial, it's lyrically pretty great (aside from a couple things) but doesn't match up to Provincial or Weakerthans musically in the slightest, by far some of the dullest and barebones, weak-ass songwriting I've ever heard from him. Provincial and Weakerthans had musical impact, this doesn't, and if this material was planned to be Weakerthans stuff then I'm glad it didn't.

TheWrenKing
October 25th 2016


1696 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

quiz night is the most engaging track tbh

ashcrash9
October 25th 2016


3080 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Quiz Night is super engaging, yeah

the middle of this album between 17th Street and that is just the best

RadicalEd
November 2nd 2016


9546 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

This is pretty good, a bit to samey.

robin
Emeritus
November 5th 2016


4574 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

needs more powerpoint

Point1
November 6th 2016


618 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I'm seeing him play in Toronto in a few nights, don't think I've ever been more excited for a show.



I mean, look at this setlist.



http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/john-k-samson/2016/west-end-cultural-centre-winnipeg-mb-canada-3bfac0bc.html

fatneckbeard
November 16th 2016


52 Comments


^Toronto show ruled. The setlist was essentially the same as that one IIRC

johnnyblaze
November 20th 2016


3227 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

damn, i'd love to see him again.



Requests is so good, reminds me of Left and Leaving (the song) in a way.

El_Goodo
December 13th 2016


1013 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Been listening to this album since it came out. Discovered it completely by accident. I was searching up his previous album on apple music and it just so happened Winter Wheat came out that day, I don't know how I didn't hear about it until that point. I agree with your opening statement, John K. is one of the finest lyricists of all time



When I first heard the album I had similar complaints to what people have said above, it was a really slow, laid-back album with sparse instrumentation. But over repeated listens it's become one of the best albums I've heard in a long time. Because of their sparse, laid-back style the songs take awhile to warm up to you. But they are so meticulously crafted, the writing so poetic (especially on my favourite track "Winter Wheat"), that it's impossible to deny what Samson has done here. He's made a warm, intimate record filled with captivating characters and line after line of classic lyrics. "We know this world is good enough, because it has to be." So simple. So powerful.

johnnyblaze
December 15th 2016


3227 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

agreed, the lyrics really do shine here.



I want you to watch the generations sprawl

Constellations in a northern sky

I want every satellite to circle you when you arrive

I want every highway sign to remember we were here

I want you to take your time to disappear



... and now i know why Requests reminds me of Left and Leaving. it's the highway sign lyric. i'm probably reaching a little, but it may be a reference to "Count yellow highway lines that you're relying on to lead you home."

Conmaniac
Contributing Reviewer
January 12th 2017


24903 Comments


woah this went under my radar. great stuff



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