John K. Samson – Winter Wheat

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  1. Melody Bot

    Your friendly little forum bot. Staff Member

    This article has been imported from chorus.fm for discussion. All of the forum rules still apply.

    “Word is getting out that The Weakerthans are done.”

    This tweet from The Weakerthans’ drummer, Jason Tait, last July didn’t surprise many fans – their last album had been in 2007 and they hadn’t played a show in two years – but it was confirmation, and it still stung to read. So when it was announced that Weakerthans vocalist/guitarist/lyricist John K. Samson would be releasing his second solo album this year featuring collaborations from Tait and Weakerthans bassist Greg Smith (among others), it almost felt like that hiatus was over. Many fans probably expected Winter Wheat to sound, somewhat, like a Weakerthans album. Given the members involved, it didn’t seem like a stretch, especially consider Samson’s last solo outing, 2012’s Provincial, was stylistically similar to his old band’s brand of indie rock. Those people were wrong.

    By and large, Winter Wheat eschews the pop-inflected indie of previous outings in favor of a more downbeat folk style. It’s not necessarily a curveball for Samson – he’d dabbled in the style here and there on tracks from the first three Weakerthans albums, but this is the first time it’s been a focal point of one of his albums’ sounds. The album’s opener, a sparse ballad called “Select All Delete,” sets the tone immediately. It doesn’t grab you by the collar and pull you in, it reaches out a hand and waits for you to take hold. The title track, which will go down as one of the most gorgeous songs in his oeuvre, follows suit, adding in swirling strings to the mix. Elsewhere, like on the livelier “VPW 13 Blues,” he picks up the tempo a bit without losing any of the folk flavor. There are a couple songs that lean more towards the side side of the spectrum, but even these are darker than older works. “Postdoc Blues,” for example, feels like Samson’s take on a Cure song, and “Vampire Alberta Blues” is a crunchy song vaguely reminiscent of early Cold War Kids. Both stand out a bit on Winter Wheat – as they would on any previous Samson release – but help to provide some bite to a record that’s mostly very vocal centric.

    Since this is a John K. Samson release, though, that last part isn’t a dig at the album. Any fan of his knows that his lyrics are a very big part of what makes him who he is. He’s always managed to be poetic, humorous, and hyper-specific all at once; listening to one of his albums feels like catching up with an old friend, and Winter Wheat perhaps proves this best of all. He’s always been a storyteller: he played a heartbroken bus driver on “Civil Twilight,” he relayed a conversation between one of Arctic explorer Ernst Shackleton’s men and philosopher Michael Foucault in “Our Retired Explorer,” and of course he tells the tale of Virtute, the runaway cat and her depressed owner in a series of songs that find resolution on this album’s closer. But Winter Wheat also introduces us to a whole host of new characters: the world-weary grad student of “Postdoc Blues,” the titular protagonist of “Vampire Alberta’s Blues,” “Fellow Traveler’s” fictionalized version of real-life Soviet spy Anthony Blunt, the residents of the 17th Street Treatment Centre in the song of the same name, the mentally ill telepath of “Quiz Night at Looky Lou’s” and its sequel “Alpha Adept.” All this time writing characters and narratives has paid off – most of these songs feel less like songs and more like novels. By the time the three-and-a-half minutes of “Postdoc Blues” are up, you really understand the narrator, his ambitions, his fears. It’s a feeling it takes many writers thousands of pages to capture, and Samson does it here in the span of two verses and a bridge.

    In contrast to the downbeat musicality of the album, though, Samson’s witty lyrics provide a feeling of levity. He identifies the setting of “Capital,” for example, as “a one-bar WiFi kinda town,” and the central lyric of “Postdoc Blues” seems to be “I believe in you and your PowerPoints.” This second one embodies the seeming underlying theme of the album: hope. Every song carries a feeling of positivity, the idea that, as bad as things are now, we are going to get through this. He doesn’t do it in a way that feels corny, though, or cheap, or overtly optimistic. In true John K. Samson style, he lets in shine in through the small things, like a belief in a friend’s project. The album’s title track contains one of the more direct lines on the album: “We know this world is good enough because it has to be.” Coming after “Postdoc Blues,” which finds its student struggling to believe he can still make the world a better place, that isn’t an admission of defeat. It’s a promise that he’ll find the good, wherever it may be. Samson himself said that “one of the themes that runs through this record is delusional thinking, and how sometimes we need to learn to live with our delusions, accept them, in this case turn them into a useful reason to live. Especially if the only other option is to let them control and destroy us.”

    The two Virtute tracks are a wonderful embodiment of that. The first is “17th Street Treatment Centre,” which follows Virtute’s owner in a rehabilitation center. The character was at their lowest point before they landed there on a “court-ordered stay.” It’s here that the owner finally begins to get better – not for the treatment, but for the friends they’ve made. The final line of the song laments how “most of us [are] probably not getting better,” but celebrates that they’re “not getting better together.” This is the feeling that Virtute had tried to inspire in her friend in her first appearance in 2003’s “Plea from a Cat Named Virtute,” and it seems, thirteen years later, Virtute finally got her wish. Virtute, “resurrected in the brain of her recovering human companion,” as Samson says, appears herself in the album’s final track, “Virtute at Rest.” Both musically and lyrically, this is probably Samson’s simplest composition, consisting of nothing more than his warm voice and a soft guitar. But that’s all he needs for the song to be the single hardest-hitting song he’s ever written.

    In fact, it is all the more effective for its simplicity. Virtute was never one to mince words before, and it follows that she wouldn’t be now. “You should know I am with you,” she tells her owner, as she “paw at the synapses.” The song is a fitting conclusion to the saga – it began with an exasperated Virtute, unable to bear watching her best friend in the condition they were, and it ends here with the two reconciling, with Virtute “proud of the steps you’ve made.” It seems she was right, and her owner really was as strong as she’d thought all along.

    But, even if the song is about a cat and makes references to paws and claws and playing with string, the message is larger than that. It’s about any victory you’ve accomplished, whether you’ve overcome depression and addiction like Virtute’s owner, you’ve survived a disease, or even only just finished your Master’s thesis, it’s a testament to human strength and will. That’s the beauty of John K. Samson’s music – even if it’s about a cat, or a sad hockey player, or futon-revolutionist – his words are always universal, and they’re always a reminder that this world really is good enough.

     
    ArsonHoliday likes this.
  2. ZooZooChaCha

    Regular

    Loving this album - def has a Weakerthans vibe to it, but is also very different.

    As expected, Virtute At Rest completely destroyed me.
     
    Turkeylegz likes this.
  3. Beardacus

    Newbie

    That was a wonderful review. I absolutely love The Weakerthans/John K. for their unique ability to instill a smiling melancholy in me like no other artists can. The reviewer summed it up better than I ever could with the sentence: "Listening to one of his albums feels like catching up with an old friend." I couldn't agree more.
     
    Turkeylegz and Zac Djamoos like this.
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  5. Barcara

    Vivat Virtute

    Beautiful review Zac! Having a new John K. album (an unsurprisingly great one at that) this year is a very special thing to some of us, and you captured that.

    I hope this draws some more attention to the album, our little pocket considers it an AOTY but I hope this inspires others to check it out.
     
    Zac Djamoos and Turkeylegz like this.
  6. Former Planets

    Aaaachem!

    Great album and fantastic review. Little error here though- " the side side of the spectrum"
     
  7. Chase Tremaine

    theherox @oursbyaccident oursbyaccident.com Supporter

    Now I feel bad for listening to the first 40 seconds of this album, hating it and giving up.
     
  8. Zac Djamoos

    goodness, present and hallowed Prestigious

    i think youd like it if you try again tbh
    damn haha, thanks for pointing that out

    thanks for all the kind words everyone! i am very proud of this review
     
  9. Jared Luttrell

    Regular

    Excited to check this out, really been listening to a lot of their albums recently but haven't checked out any of his new solo material.
     
  10. Zac Djamoos

    goodness, present and hallowed Prestigious

    its pretty different, haha, but i think a weakerthans fan will still be able to find things to love here
     
  11. ArsonHoliday

    No sir, I don't like it

    Great review of a great album! That final Virtute song really gets me. I was having an exchange with someone regarding Virtute herself...the title, "Virtute at rest", along with Samson's description of the track ("...resurrected in the brain of her owner...") seem to imply that Virtute died. But how would the owner know this if Virtute ran away? Regardless, love the song and album, this just tripped me up.
     
    Zac Djamoos likes this.
  12. Bryan Diem

    Trusted

    Album couldn't be better.
     
  13. honkytonk

    Narcissism on narcotics

    Bought this album today based on your review, going to give it a spin on my commute to work tomorrow.
     
    Zac Djamoos likes this.
  14. Zac Djamoos

    goodness, present and hallowed Prestigious

    Hope you like!
     
  15. honkytonk

    Narcissism on narcotics

    I enjoyed it very much, especially the lyrics! It was a great soundtrack to my morning commute. Can't wait to give it some more spins.
     
    Zac Djamoos likes this.
  16. Zac Djamoos

    goodness, present and hallowed Prestigious

    Nice! Yeah, lyrics are a focal point of his stuff. You like The Weakerthans?
     
  17. honkytonk

    Narcissism on narcotics

    I'm familiar with a few of their more popular songs (Civil Twilight, etc.) but haven't dug into their discography. Any recommendation on where to begin?
     
    Zac Djamoos likes this.
  18. EmmanuelSCastle

    Trusted

    The only John K stuff I've listened to before is Fallow, but I liked this review so I'm gonna listen to Left and Leaving today since I've had it on my ipod forever. Good review!
     
    Zac Djamoos likes this.
  19. Zac Djamoos

    goodness, present and hallowed Prestigious

    I'd start with Left & Leaving, but all four of their albums are classics IMO

    My #2 of all time; let me know what you think! And thanks!
     
  20. Former Planets

    Aaaachem!

    I never really got into Fallow, maybe because the vocals are just a little weak comparatively. I'm a diehard fan of everything else. Maybe I'll revisit it again.
     
    Zac Djamoos likes this.
  21. T.K.

    Prestigious Browser Prestigious

    I took from the song that the owner has finally accepted that Virtute's gone, but this doesn't necessary mean he knows that she's dead. It's a loss but he's moving past it and yet it still comes up from time to time. It's like the way the absence is always present but it slowly turns from an acute pain to a dull ache. I think these lyrics demonstrate it pretty well:

    "Now that the treatment
    and antidepressants
    and seven months sober
    have built me a bed
    In the back of your brain,
    where the memories flicker"

    I think this is such a lovely, sad song. It gives a very unique take, almost a detached viewpoint on loss.
     
    Zac Djamoos likes this.
  22. Zac Djamoos

    goodness, present and hallowed Prestigious

    Yeah, I know fallow is the overlooked weakerthans album haha. I think it's got some of johns best lyrics tho, it's def worth a revisit at some point. Wellingtons Wednesdays is my fav on that album
     
  23. Kennedy

    loomasleep.bandcamp.com Prestigious

    didnt mean to post in this thread. but this album rules.
     
  24. Barcara

    Vivat Virtute

    Fallow was the last Weakerthans album that I got around to listening to. Having been aware of his past with Propaghandi, I was pleasantly surprised by how much John's punk rock roots are especially prevalent on that album. Lots of faster, upbeat songs including two covers from his Propa stint. Good times, love that album.

    Reunion Tour
    (Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre, seriously this fantastic)
    Reconstruction Site
    Left & Leaving
    Winter Wheat
    Provincial
    Fallow
    (The Falcon Lake Incident)


    And I love the Falcon Lake Incident.
     
    Zac Djamoos likes this.
  25. Zac Djamoos

    goodness, present and hallowed Prestigious

    Reunion tour is your favorite huh? Not sure I've ever seen that before. Shame, bc that album is good as hell. I think utilities is their best closer. I agree that it's a lot more obvious hearing fallow that he's John from propagandhi than with their other stuff. The live album is amazing. One of the best live albums I've ever heard. What's he falcon lake incident? Never heard that one!
     
  26. Barcara

    Vivat Virtute

    Agreed on the live album. Close with Deprature is such a perfect decision on their part.

    Falcon Lake is a Jim Bryson record in which he recruited the band to record with, it's credited as Jim Bryson & the Weakerthans so I like to include it, especially if it open more eyes to Bryson haha.

    The Falcon Lake Incident by Jim Bryson & The Weakerthans on Apple Music

    Here's him and John hanging out and playing some tunes from it:

     
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