Review of Winter Wheat Album by John K. Samson
John K. Samson’s new solo record feels like the ending of one chapter of his creative ventures while opening the door to whatever comes next. Winter Wheat, his follow-up to 2012’s Provincial, is more sedate and sparse as the title suggests, but also serves as a fitting epitaph to The Weakerthans during their extended hiatus from the studio. Samson manages to make these new songs feel more like the work of his band, while technically not sounding anything like The Weakerthans. As you’d expect it’s a lyrically dense record that celebrates Mother Nature, features the world’s most ominous pub quiz, and presents a final appearance from everyone’s favourite Canadian feline companion.
Emotionally Samson presents a long hard winter through many of these songs, whether it’s the frozen crop fields or cold, sterile workplaces of his Canadian homeland, there’s a definite undercurrent musically and lyrically. Samson’s also been vocal in stating that some these songs are a direct reaction to the themes presented on fellow countryman Neil Young’s 1974 album On The Beach. Certainly, there is an examination of addiction to drugs, screens, and fossil fuels, which links thematically to that record. However, the spirit of Young has felt most acutely in the guitars and vocal delivery of ‘Vampire Alberta Blues’. Samson’s real strength isn’t in channelling Young; it’s his well-honed turn of phrase. One such example being the description of a “one bar wi-fi kind of town” during ‘Capital’. It’s descriptions like that which have always made his songs stay with you long after the record has stopped playing.
It makes sense that Winter Wheat has the feel of a Weakerthans record when you consider that Jason Tait has co-produced the album and Greg Smith has contributed as a musician. For my money, though, it’s the return of Virtute the cat that links Winter Wheat’s narrative to the band’s work. It’s especially heartbreaking to discover what has happened to Virtute’s owner and the inner monologue that closes the album is sure to make anyone who’s ever been a fan of Virtute’s previous adventures cry. Unfortunately, Frank Turner, who famously sports a Virtute tattoo on his arm, may find that piece of artwork a little more emotionally harrowing after hearing Winter Wheat.
The most intriguing and unsettling moment to be found among these fifteen songs comes with ‘Quiz Night at Looky Lou’s’. It’s a strange David Lynch-esque, predominantly spoken word, a fever dream that weaves Samson’s literary tendencies into something I can’t recall him trying before. In the same way as Lou Reed and John Cale’s ‘A Dream’ from Songs For Drella, this particular track is arresting for coming across more as a theatrical monologue than a fully formed song. There’s a menacing sadness and strangeness that permeates the mundanely of the protagonist’s story of “administering* a quiz. It’s a perfect example of Samson’s strength as a lyricist.
By the time that ‘Prayer For Ruby Elm’ signals the first shoots of Spring you realise that Samson has produced an accomplished record that’s an important punctuation mark in the narrative of his career. There are cohesive themes to the songs that reach back to The Weakerthans and even further to Neil Young, but it all makes sense as part of a larger Canadian musical tapestry. There are moments where Winter Wheat feels less ambitious on a musical level than Samson’s previous albums, but it’s perhaps his strongest narrative yet.
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