A friend of mine of discerning music taste considers John K. Samson the greatest living Canadian songwriter. And when I commended a regular customer of the music store I work at on his recent purchase of Samson’s extraordinary new offering, Winter Wheat, he told me, emphatically, that Samson is his favourite person, period – Canadian, songwriter, or otherwise.
Indeed, despite Samson’s relatively slim output over two decades, he is regarded with great reverence here in Canada, and to boot by indie fans, punks, folkies and, well, pretty much anyone that recognises brilliant songcraft. As leader of The Weakerthans, the Winnipeg native and former Propagandhi bassist has issued just four studio albums and a collaborative project with Jim Bryson, and – apart from a couple of three-song EPs – until Winter Wheat, one previous solo release (2012’s Provincial) since 1997. The last Weakerthans release, a bristling live set, landed in 2009, but since then – in a lovely, though likely unintended blast at the tiresome ‘on hiatus’ status – the band has declared itself ‘cryogenically frozen.’ However, the old adage of quality over quantity unfailingly applies to this man’s work, so when a new Samson release of any kind does eventually arrive, Winter Wheat being the first for four years, it truly is an event worth the wait. What’s more, this particular event is, considering his track record, unsurprisingly a late contender for my favourite Canadian release of 2016.
For anyone new to Samson’s amazing music, yet familiar with or appreciative of such as the Decemberists, Clem Snide or the Mountain Goats, this man is certainly for you. Musically, while the Weakerthans crank it up and riff pretty hard at the rockier end of the folk-rock spectrum, Samson’s solo material – while occasionally similarly muscular – is sonically less intense, stripped back, janglier and lighter. Lyrically, though, the man is nothing short of a bona fide poet, but that should probably be expected of an adjunct creative writing professor, as Samson is for the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
I just adore fiercely intelligent, literate songwriters, people who look at the world and write songs about it in utterly unique, non-formulaic and profound ways – like the aforementioned Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, who, let us not forget, devoted his entire most recent album (2015’s Beat the Champ) to the central theme of wrestling. Nothing about that is ordinary. Samson is also such a writer, a purveyor of indelible lyrical imagery, both direct and opaque, real and imagined, drawing inspiration from a head-spinning range of subject matter. On Winter Wheat, Neil Young’s classic On the Beach is ink for his quill, as are, for example, the oil industry and human reliance on fossil fuels; the novels of the multi-award-winning Canadian writer, Miriam Toews; a friend’s in-production film about the Icelandic heritage of Winnipeg; the notorious art historian/Soviet spy, Anthony Blunt; Dutch elm disease; the oldest oak tree in a Winnipeg cemetery; technology addiction and, of all things, his aversion to Skype. Married to Samson’s unwaveringly emotive melodies, his vivid poetry makes for an intoxicating listen that reveals more of itself with each successive airing.
I usually like to quote lyrics in my reviews, but in this instance I will resist the temptation because I wish for readers/listeners either totally new to Samson or just to Winter Wheat, to experience akin to what I have in discovering its manifold wonders. This said, without really giving anything away, when did you last find such words as algorithmically, cankerworms, photosynthesize, dongle and PowerPoints, or mention of the Ogallala Aquifer water table, in any song lyrics?
While the Weakerthans may be on hiat…er…currently inactive, bass player Greg Smith and drummer Jason Tait appear on Winter Wheat, almost making it a full band album. The latter’s contribution is notable, with guitars, keyboards, vibraphone and ‘sounds’ next to his name. Also present are Ashley Au (basses, vocals), Shotgun Jimmie (guitars), Leanne Zacharias (cello) and Samson’s multi-talented wife – alongside Tait, Winter Wheat’s co-producer – singer-songwriter Christine Fellows, who brings keyboards, melodica, autoharp, ukulele, vibraphone and vocals to the project.
Okay, I give in…so in closing will reveal just one lyric. As this is my final FRUK contribution of this difficult year – with its escalating violence; global political turmoil; surging, nationalist/right-wing ideologies and nativism, not to mention the passing of so many cultural figureheads – I would like to wrap up 2016 in a hopeful manner by lifting a line from Winter Wheat’s glorious, anthemic second track, Postdoc Blues. Coming from such a humanitarian artist as John K. Samson it is as good a plea for sanity as any:
…recommit yourself to the healing of the world, and to the welfare of all creatures upon it.
Live Session for Old Crow Magazine:
Winter Wheat is out now via Anti/Epitaph
Photo Credit: Leif Norman