“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[s] 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.