John K. Samson continues writing songs of solace and expansive generosity.
John K. Samson occupies a comfortable spot on the long list of songwriters who should be better known than they are. As the leader of the Weakerthans, and on his own as a solo artist, Samson has excelled at writing touching, precisely drawn portraits of people enduring trials and tribulations. It probably doesn't help that his songs bear names like "Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San", "When I Write My Master's Thesis", or "www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle". Intriguing as such titles are, they also sound like something you'd find lurking in a David Foster Wallace footnote: clever, intelligent, but rarefied.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to dismiss Samson as just another arch, wry, ironically distanced hipster songwriter. His songs are anything but detached. Rather, they focus on the same big issues through which we all struggle, painted in vivid and detailed character portraits of loneliness, adversity, and defiance. That theme of defiance is on full display right from the album opener "Select All Delete", which advocates disconnecting from the harmful things in one's life. That sounds like a retreat, but in Samson's view, it's jettisoning interpersonal poison, saying, in effect, "you deserve better than this, and you don't have to put up with it, even if you're doing it to yourself." That's immediately followed by the chiming optimism of "Postdoc Blues", which advises "don't despair, you'll get it right ... don't delay, your day is short" and "pursue a practice that will strengthen your heart". Even when he can't offer unvarnished hope, he's at least comforting in his realism, like when he sings on "17th Street Treatment Centre", "most of us not getting better/ But not getting better together".
These are the kinds of songs that seem unassuming on record, but turn out to be the ones that become singalong anthems at the live shows. So if Winter Wheat at first seems unassuming in that patented John K. Samson way, it's a misleading first impression. It's also what makes a song like "Vampire Alberta Blues" stand out even more than it normally would; done as a note- and guitar tone-perfect homage to Neil Young's "Vampire Blues", the song punctuates Winter Wheat with over three minutes of unadulterated venom, and it's joyous.
For all that, it's perhaps a bit ironic (or fitting) that Samson's greatest achievement may come in the form of a cat named Virtute. First introduced to us in the Weakerthans' "Plea from a Cat Named Virtute" and its follow-up, "Virtute the Cat Explains His Departure", Virtute returns here in "Virtute at Rest". Like all of Samson's narrators, Virtute is a sharp observer of those around him, and longtime Samson listeners have seen his sardonic observations of his master's neuroses turn to sad fear and loneliness. Here, we find his former owner in similar straits, leading Virtute to comfort, "now that the treatment and antidepressants / And seven months sober / Have built me a bed / In the back of your brain / Where the memories flicker / And I paw at the synapses, / Bright bits of string, / You should know I am with you, / Know I forgive you, / Know I'm proud of the steps you have made." In increasingly heartbreaking (if hopeful) fashion, the song is a prime example of Samson's ability to take a specific, idiosyncratic situation and forge a larger and universally identifiable experience. As song cycles go, it's an impressive achievement.
The same can be said for Samson's growing catalog of songs. Winter Wheat is an impressive record, ranking as one of the best of Samson's career.