When The Weakerthans closed up shop, the move came after years of inactivity, so the announcement was particularly bittersweet for fans that had been holding out for a formal swan song. As it turns out, fans would be given the chance for at least a sense of closure two years later, when front man John K. Samson would release his latest solo album, Winter Wheat. More stripped down and personal in scope, the album continues to capture Samson’s penchant for small town prairie simplicity. While at times lagging in energy, Samson’s telltale charm makes for an intimate listen.
Listening to Winter Wheat is akin to sitting fireside, listening to a close friend whispering confessions trustingly in your ear. While the album primarily benefits from full band accompaniment, Samson’s careful pacing ranges from meandering spoken word crawls to jovial sing-along jaunts. Right out the gate, the dreary tempo of “Select All Delete” contrasts clearly with the catchy mid-tempo chorus of “Postdoc Blues.” Despite the single-worthy aura of the latter, the former’s intimate charm validates its purpose during repeat listens. Given a focused listening environment, most of the slower-paced, piano-laced tunes (“Requests,” “Carrie Ends The Call”) make for an immersive listen that somehow avoids lagging.
A song like “17th Street Treatment Centre” exemplifies the poetic allure propelling these melancholy narratives to life. Set on the twenty-first day of the protagonist’s “court ordered stay” in a rehab centre, the descriptions of barren walls, nights spent staring at empty ceilings, and vivid characters instantly spring the song to life. Samson describes the unique and diverse cast, “the punk and the priest and the real estate agent, the girl with no teeth and the shaking marine, the serbian deadhead who wears his sunglasses, so no one can see at my eyes.” The track’s minimalist nature is an easy reminder of just how lyrically driven The Weakerthans were, and Samson’s solo work is no different.
Of course Samson is always good for a catchy melody, even in his simplistic solo medium. As always, Samson is at his best when laying down some subtle prairie twang. Perhaps the most instantly memorable is the politically driven anti-oil anthem, “Vampire Alberta Blues.” Through a steady tempo and country-drenched chords, Samson projects the personification of ecological destruction of northern Alberta at the hands of faceless corporate greed. Dressed respectfully and moving cautiously, Samson describes this faceless figure’s social benevolence in the succinct visual of a businessman wearing, “a bowtie and pin that says, protect the arts.” The juxtaposition of decaying habitats far removed from prospering cities proposes a sad moral reality in which we our own lifestyles serve to feed such an unquenched thirst.
The only stumbling block comes in the form of the spoken-word narrative, “Quiz Night At Looky Lou’s.” The vivid imagery and topic details a wandering quiz master, traveling the country in search of “alpha adepts” by embedding hidden messages at quiz nights at local bars marks a curious prospect. While an intriguing premise, the problem emerges after the first listen or two. The story becomes less striking, and the plodding tempo becomes boring. Throughout Winter Wheat, the track holds the dubious honor of being the one track worth skipping on repeat listens. While initially engaging, the result lacks the staying power of its neighbours.
Overall, John K. Samson overcomes the modest lethargy inherent in Winter Wheat’s tempo, and succeeds on the merits of his timeless charm and masterful lyricism. Considering that the album was recorded in conjunction with some of The Weakerthans’ lineage as instrumental support, the outcome is nothing less than what fans would expect.