Saturday, August 24, 2013

Late to the Party #5: The Weakerthans

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around, for some reason or another.

It seems like eventually, almost every person reaches a point where they stop seeking out new music and just keep going back to the what they're familiar with.  I don't think the time has come for me to stop searching for new music, but I sometimes do wonder whether the peak era of music has already come and gone for me.   There's still a wide array of music out there that I like, but most of my favorite bands are ones I started listening to in middle or high school, and it's rare that I get excited about a new band in the same way I did back then.  Is it just that I'm older and less inclined to be enthusiastic or that indie rock is genuinely not as good as it used to be back in the mid-2000s?  Well The Weakerthans serve as the perfect experiment for testing out this question.  Although they put out their first album in  1997, their most popular album, Reconstruction Site was released in 2003, right around the time I was starting to branch out from solely listening to rap music.  I'd always heard of the band, but somehow I just never got around to listening to them, which is especially strange given my love for other Canadian indie rock bands that were exploding around the same time.

Recently, I finally dove deep into their catalog, and found myself regretting going so long without having checked them out.  Right from the first couple of chords, I was amazed that despite never having listened to them in middle school, I was still hit with waves of nostalgia for that time period.  Their albums, particularly Reconstruction Site, just feel like adolescence.  Part of it comes from the level of earnestness in lead singer John K. Samson's lyrics, which are sung in a nasal voice that rests somewhere between Ben Gibbard and Colin Meloy.  Much like those two, he writes with eyes wide and heart exposed.  This style can often induce cringes, like looking back at an old diary, yet Samson avoids that pitfall because his lyrics have genuine humor and brains behind them.  There's a real emotional acuity to songs like "Letter of Resignation" and "Night Windows" that you don't get in other bands who go straight for the soft spots.

Another quality that Samson shares with Colin Meloy is that his lyrics are filled with dense allusions to history, mythology, art, and everything else under the sun.  Take "Without Mythologies" on Left & Leaving, which mixes several Greek myths together to paint a portrait of a dissolved relationship.  To use just one myth would slightly elevate the song above its well-trodden terrain, but the mix of metaphors serve to reflect the speaker's frazzled desire to piece things together again.  There's a deep sense of unrest in many of The Weakerthans' songs, most notably regarding place.  Lonely street corner pamphleteers, put-out businessmen, and lovelorn bus drivers inhabit their tunes, and listening to an album of theirs feels like navigating a restless world full of those who exist on the most solitary fringes of society.  Samson and the rest of the band hail from Winnipeg, and their songs remind me of Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg in the way they describe the everyday grind of the province with equal amounts of longing and loathing.  The sarcastically titled "One Great City!" wraps up this conflict all in one song -- Samson closes out each verse with a defeated "I hate Winnipeg...," yet he describes the place with such tender detail nonetheless.

Samson originated in the punk band Propagandhi, and rebelliousness permeates through the sound of The Weakerthans too, especially on their debut record, Fallow.  It's at once their punkiest and folkiest album, and sometimes the restlessness doesn't mix with the sleepiness.  2000's Left & Leaving improves upon the band's formula, adding more punch to the fast songs and better construction on the midtempo numbers.  But their best album is definitely Reconstruction Site, which might be one of my favorite indie rock albums of the previous decade.  Samson's skills as a guitarist and band leader are at their peak here.  His riffs go a level beyond generic indie rock territory, and the rest of the band's interplay is better too, giving the songs a substantial boost of energy.  Many of them, like "Time's Arrow," have various instruments cascading together in all of the right ways, the band perfectly synchronized in dizzying fashion.  Some fans say that Reunion Tour (2007) is a step down in quality, but it's just as good as their other material, if not better than every album beside Reconstruction Site.  Although released only four years after Reconstruction, it feels like a greatest hits album, combining all of the classic elements of the band in one package.  There's the well-constructed catchy rock ("Sun in An Empty Room"); detailed character studies ("Elegy for Gump Worsely"); and meditations on death, illness and loss ("Hymn of the Medical Oddity," "Night Windows").

The absolute pinnacle of the band's discography is the two-song Virtute series, which starts on Reconstruction Site with "Plea From a Cat Named Virtute" and continues on Reunion Tour with "Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure".  Told from the perspective of a cat whose owner is severely depressed, "Plea From a Cat Named Virtute" manages to use the simple impulses and thoughts of a cat to beautifully mine the complexities of the owner's malaise.  If it was the same sentiment but from a human perspective, it'd be a fine song, but the fact that it's a cat imploring her owner to be happy makes it one of the most moving and uplifting songs of the last decade.  What's more, Virtute is the name of Samson's actual cat, which gives you a little insight into why the song feels so acute and personal.  The story is picked back up on "Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure," where it takes a dark turn, as she runs away from home and prowls the cold and lonely streets, eventually forgetting the sound of her owner's voice.  The ambiguity of Virtute's fate just adds more nuance to the song, allowing you to feel optimistic or bummed out by the ending depending on your mood.

It's that celebration of the downtrodden that makes The Weakerthans so special.  By spinning tales about the lonely, the weak, and the sad, they find strength in their chronicling of the smallness of everyday life.  They're the type of band who can write a song about a deaf girl ("Elegy For Elsabet") or a retired hockey player ("Elegy For Gump Worsely") and make it beautiful and wrenching.  There hasn't been a new album from them in 6 years, so we might have to assume that they're done making music together, but it'd also be just like them to brush themselves off and pull together another collection of stories from the scrappy and forgotten.


  1. a brilliant text about a brilliant band. made me realize once again why i do appreciate the fantastic pieces of art they put together. thank you.