[2 December 2003]
In a move pretty much guaranteed to bewilder Serious Young Hipsters everywhere, John K. Samson—with his central Canadian band the Weakerthans—has embarked on a relatively gentle (and literate) pop heading seemingly very much at odds with the metronomic, angular (and angry) discord of his former punk band, Propagandhi. Odd as this apparent re-think might seem, there is method to his madness, in the form of a compelling pair of common denominators—humour and genuine socio-political conviction. Considering this reinvention, not to mention all the postmodern references, Reconstruction Site is a perfect title for the band’s third full-length release.
The real unspoken question circling this record is: how rock and roll (subtext: how punk) is erudition? Can an art form that has traditionally celebrated fucking and fighting also extend its gut-level jittery attention to reading and writing? Does a Pomo literate sensibility have any place in the spit-and-sweat mosh pit?
Well, sure it does. Up to a point. Very few have taken the Fall to task on this topic, for instance. Or XTC. Or Pavement. Or Patti “Rimbaud” Smith. Hell, what about McLaren’s Sex Pistols and little Johnny “Art School” Rotten? And yet there’s a broad continuum—progressing, roughly, from smart to smartass to smarmy—just waiting gleefully to trip the unwary. However, being embarrassed about, and trying to disguise, your own smarts is kind of like stooping when you’re self-consciously tall. You’ll just draw attention to it anyway. Why not just stand up straight, and to hell with anyone who laughs? The Weakerthans get away with it because they communicate their quirkily curious, poetic messages in spite of—as opposed to because of—the odd reference to Derrida, Foucault, James Agee and Martin Amis. There’s this sense of a querulous, questing, questioning mind enclosing a very real, very tender, beating heart.
So what does the damn music sound like, already? Well, it sounds a little like Weezer, a little like the Replacements, a little like John Darnielle’s Mountain Goats, a little bit pop, a little bit folk and a little bit (alt-) country. And the sum of all those parts is nowhere near as frightening as that sounds.
Ranging from the celebratory to the disquieting, taking in moods quizzical, impatient, conflicted, sweet and melancholy, these songs are formed around a parenthetically titled spine consisting of opener “(Manifest)”, closer “(Past-Due)”, and the centrally placed “(Hospital Vespers)”. All three songs share a chord structure and Shakespearean sonnet form (!), yet are very different in mood. The former is almost military in its call-to-arms stand-to-attention rhythm, not to mention its sense of some barely hinted-at personal manifesto that attempts to conflate actions with words. Rusty Matys’s trumpet, erupting like a grin close to the end of the song, underscores this initial exuberance. The mid-point “(Hospital Vespers)”, on the other hand, is the oddest track on the album; a disconcerting reverse-looped lament, reminiscent of the creepier corners of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, that appears to allude to something darkly Orwellian in our treatment of both faith and madness (“Before the nurses came, took you away, I stood there on a chair and watched you pray”). Completing this triumvirate is the truncated elegy (“Past-Due)”, slowly unfolding like some ‘80s benefit ensemble (Band Aid or “Biko”, take your pick) before collapsing prematurely into the kinds of electronic bleeps and blips that will echo in the black howl of space long after we’ve all passed beyond memory.
Given this ultimate emphasis on the unavoidable finality of death, you’d think this would be a downer of a record, yet oddly it’s not. There’s playfulness here, albeit of a particularly snarky-strange kind. The effusively disdainful “Plea from a Cat Named Virtue” pits a housecat against his depressive, self-defeating owner in the mother of all bizarro pep talks: “And listen, about those bitter songs you sing? They’re not helping anything.” (Honestly, I could quote reams of these couplets.) Single release “Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)”—with its driving pop/rock enthusiasm and seemingly random name-checks of Ernest Shackleton, deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, Foucault himself, and some anonymous penguin who taught the narrator French in Antarctica—is slyly, dismissively hilarious.
Right at the intersection of this effusive wordplay and the more sombre contemplative moments is the ambivalent homage to Winnipeg, “One Great City!” Rife with local colour (or, perhaps, lack of colour, since “a darker grey is breaking through a lighter one”), this simple finger picked acoustic gem breaks through any lingering preciousness with endearingly brutal honesty, and somewhere hidden within the refrain, “I hate Winnipeg”, is the merest shadow of its opposite (the Golden Boy statue atop the Legislative Building sings “I love this town” while simultaneously overseeing the dismantling of its poorest, most character-steeped district, the North End). Samson’s reedy vocals, all down home vulnerability, work best here.
This would be an easy record to (dis)miss; aside from the intellectual reaching already discussed (full disclosure: I’m hopelessly middle brow and had to research numerous references for this review), it glides by fairly effortlessly on initial listenings. But textures—Stephen Carroll’s lap/pedal steel guitar, Sarah Harmer’s cozy backing vocals that make the band sound like a more laid-back New Pornographers, Jason Tait’s tight, emotional drumming and the warmth of vibes and glockenspiel—reveal themselves long after the lyricism ceases to delight, and if we allow ourselves, we may become transported to an alternate world in which everyone trudges through snow in their brand new winter coat and counts Loonies in some idealized Canada—one in which we are suddenly able to dismantle and reconstruct the realities that haunt us, shape-shifting for survival like the lost animal characters in Marcel Dzama’s compellingly apt cover art. Or, in other more poetically loaded words, we can maybe “try to let . . . our losses dangle off the sharp edge of a century, and talk about the weather, or how the weather used to be.”