John K. Samson seems to have figured out what his band, the Weakerthans, are all about. After leaving politi-punk outfit Propaghandi, Samson formed the Weakerthans and released their first album, Fallow. Unfortunately, that album suffered from a pop-punk hangover that dragged down more songs than it propped up. But since then, with albums Left and Leaving and Reconstruction Site, Samson and his band have settled into a brand of heartfelt guitar pop that works for them. The music is straightforward and full of power chords, but it is also smart enough to get away with simplicity.
On Reunion Tour, their first new record in four years, not much has changed in the Weakerthans’ approach. The music is still direct while the songs often depict people trudging through a life that is anything but simple. Reunion Tour is heavy with the snowy Canadian landscape, with people who fill the dark, fleeting winter days with brown liquor and existential conversations with their pets. Loneliness and disconnection run deep through these songs, and most of the time Samson is great at assembling the minutiae of a day into a melancholy laundry list that invites you to belly up to the bar with these solitary creatures and feel what they’re feeling.
“I can’t stop finding your face in their faces all rearranged” Samson sings about passing commuters on album opener “Civil Twilight”. It’s a fitting start to the record, as the narrator sings from the side of the road while the rush hour traffic passes by. This is one of many instances on Reunion Tour where someone is on the outside looking in, left alone to brood over their heavy thoughts. “Hymn of the Medical Oddity” finds a child wishing to be remembered as “more than just a queer experiment” and wishing he didn’t know all the medical terms the doctors keep using to define him. The scant, falling guitar notes accent the patient’s isolation until the song rises at the end, the child finding all its strength in a plea to be remembered as a human being and not a footnote.
“Tournament of Hearts” is the best track on the album. It is pure Weakerthans, Samson using verses to get to a chorus that sounds anthemic but never really comes out of its narrator’s head. The guy in this song is a former athlete, stranded at a bar by his old teammates, and now he’s alone and surrounded by a group of farmers. He takes stock of the thing he forgets the more he drinks (“All the championship banners, going yellow on the wall / And my name as it gets closer to last call”), and wishes all the while that he could, just once, “stop where he wants to stay”. By the end of the song, team pictures are staring at him from their frames behind the bar, and he’s not going home to someone waiting by a silent phone, and while all this could come off as sad-bastard and romantically defeatist, Samson’s lyrics are too well-wrought and honest in the way that these characters almost break out of their mold, almost remember what they drunkenly figured out when they awake hungover the next day. Almost, but not quite.
For most of the record, the Weakerthans play to their strengths. Even “Virtue the Cat Explains her Departure”, narrated by a cat (first introduced to Weakerthan fans on Reconstruction Site), works because the cat becomes anthropomorphized, something for the owner to hang his troubles on. “Sun in an Empty Room” drops the distortion and fully embraces guitar pop, starting off the second half of the record on the perfect foot. However, the end of the record has a handful of missed opportunities.
Chief among them could be the title track. With its military-march drums and Samson’s syncopated cadence, it lends itself to stretching out and sustaining its built-in tension. But Samson and company bail out on the track at just over two minutes, and it sounds rushed. If they gave it the time it needed, it’d be one of the great tracks they’d done to date, but instead the tension of the song is wasted when they arbitrarily cut the song short. The same problem pops up with “Big Foot!”. At first, it is just Samson and his acoustic guitar, waiting for the day where “the visions that I see believe in me”. It is a simple enough song to get in and out as a shorter vignette than some of the other tracks. But, at the end Samson brings some trumpets in and the song rises and expands in its sadness and opens up some space. But, instead of taking advantage of that space, the song fades out, making it feel as rushed as “Reunion Tour” does. Luckily, closer “Utilities” finds the ghostly winter atmosphere the whole album has been chasing down, and uses it to make the album’s biggest sound, full of wisps of noise and guitar solos all used with perfect restraint. When Samson sings “Make me something somebody can use”, he doesn’t make his nasally vocals plaintiff and strained. Instead, his delivery is fragile, even a little beaten down.
By the end of the record, these people seem at the end of their rope, begging some benevolent force to help them out and it provides enough movement to Reunion Tour to make it a cohesive, solid album. Excluding the spoken-word “Elegy for Gump Worsley”—which sounds like an arch attempt to be taken seriously—the Weakerthans do what they do best, and the result are solid. Could they perhaps be faulted for a lack of ambition? Sure. But they know what sound they want to make, and they make it here without re-treading their previous albums, and have given us something long-time fans and newcomers alike can enjoy.