If not for the fact that John K. Samson had already made a name for himself as lead smart-ass of Manitoba pop-punks Propagandhi, the Weakerthans could have been lost in the vacuum that swallowed most brilliant Canadian artists of the 1990s. When the Weakerthans began in 1997 Winnipeg, Samson was primarily known as a socio-sarcasm ultra-punk mouthpiece, part stand-up comic and part NY Times op/ed piece, throwing punches at the mainstream and the underground with equal force, acknowledging no difference in the hypocrisy of downtown suits and gutter punks. No one was safe, everyone was flawed, and Samson was more than willing to point out the absurdity of modern life to anyone who might cram into a chilly basement squat or naïve coffee-shop.
Basically, Samson is a singer-songwriter, except that he’s too post-modern to simply give his band his name. After establishing himself as a loudmouth punker shithead, Samson spent the first two Weakerthans albums coming to terms with his transition from the anti-king of one-liners to a writer and artist, without betraying a transformation from anarchist crackpot to neo-liberal pussy. Fallow is a carefully understated shimmer of indie pop. Samson fumbles around on some acoustic thing on the opening track, “Illustrated Stories for Bible Children,” but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Most of the album’s lyrics are either mildly amusing (“Peer out under a sky that looks just like a shirt I lost”) or simply beneath him (“I have a feeling that hums with the street lights”). To his credit, Samson humanizes himself by addressing such personal problems as insecurity with lines like “I have desire / That falters and falls down / calls you up drunk at 3 or 4 AM”.
Left & Leaving is more of the same. Samson never directly discusses politics, only brushes against topics with tedious precision, cleverly avoiding judgment in favor of description. “Pamphleteer,” the disc’s most significant track, explores the solitude of the activist rather than his cause. It’s quite the high ground to take for the man who once sang “I’d rather be imprisoned in a George Orwellian world / Than this pacified society.” It’s also far more effective.
Reconstruction Site is a masterpiece of late-night indie-rock, when all the cool people have gone off to have sex with each other and you’re left alone or stuck with your loser friends. From the country mish-mash of “A New Name for Everything,” the pseudo-pop punk of “(Manifest)” to the nearly sublime caress of the interlude “(Hospital Vespers”), Samson is here an artist absolutely in touch with himself and his audience. Each of the touchingly literate drunken sing-a-longs is an update of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” for lifetime grad students with a lifetime of incompletes, lost chances, dates that went horribly wrong and tabs at bars that don’t normally issue tabs. It’s an album of college towns, wherever something exists to distract smart-alecks from the boredom of being too intelligent for one’s own good. Despite a song about self-love from a frustrated cat to its self-deprecating owner (“Plea From a Cat Named Virtute”), this is actually an album of self-discovery that strains the facetious heart of indie rock with simply listenable introspection. Jeff Tweedy should blush that he’s too pretentious to write stuff like this.
Reunion Tour (a studio album, natch) reverts to the decent but not great indie rock of Left and Fallow. The songs are catchy and listenable, but Samson’s lyrics lack the depth of songs like “Benediction” or “A New Name for Everything” on its predecessor. Reunion Tour does sound like a Weakerthans album, and it would be too harsh to accuse Samson of simply not trying on this one, but where is the inspiration of Reconstruction Site, the rage and torment of simply living life and making good and bad choices and dealing with their outcomes and still being able to sing “Throw away my misery / It never meant that much to me / It never once bought me a drink”? At his best, Samson is an artist on his knees, looking up, not at the audience, but at himself.