If Provincial, John K. Samson’s 2012 solo debut, was an extension of his work with the Weakerthans, Winter Wheat represents a further retreat from his past, into a quietly introspective take on his lyrical short stories in miniature. Gone is the punk bluster of the younger Samson, replaced by a set of fragile mises en scène peopled with junkies, the disenfranchised, the hopeless and an introspective approach to his personal life. In this, Samson uses Winter Wheat to further cement his position as the poet laureate for the common man with his plainspoken, universally relatable songs.

Not a single word on Winter Wheat is wasted, each thoughtfully selected, perfectly placed and affording just enough information to create vivid mental images. Even in their relative abstraction, Samson’s lyrics resonate through both his candid delivery and unaffected everyman poet persona. He remains on a level at once relatable, knowable and personal. His songs are populated by friends, neighbors and the strangers you pass every day on your way to work. In a sense, there’s a blinding realness to his poetic lyricism, one in which emotions become palpable and even the most mundane is given pause for closer inspection.

Where before Samson’s songs largely played out as fully formed narratives, here he resorts to a more impressionistic, abstract approach, forcing the listener to project the images themselves rather than through meticulous narrative detail. Instead, we are afforded lines like “The sun selecting targets for the shadows to attack” on the title track and “So long, living in between/ A tiny screen and a slightly larger screen/ The loneliest way to stay alone” (“Carrie Ends the Call”). And, as with any Samson-penned project, the nuance of his lyrics remains the primary focus. Having stripped back the instrumentation to the barest of essentials, they come prominently to the fore, ensuring their weight and meaning is placed above form and melody.

But this isn’t to say the music itself is inconsequential or simply in service of Samson’s lyrics. Rather, it presents a level of delicacy in keeping with the fragility of both his vocals and the lives of the characters populating his world. With the help of his former Weakerthans rhythm section, Samson uses their years of musical comradery as the basis upon which to build his rudimentary workmanlike arrangements. Tempos having slowed to a crawl, Greg Smith’s bass and Jason Tait’s sparse kit work to add texture more than rhythmic propulsion. It’s an impressionistic approach to each that helps fill in the subtlest of details within each track.

Hope again proves to be a recurring theme throughout Winter Wheat: hope for a better tomorrow, a better life and better world in which to live. It’s as though Samson himself has fully adopted the role thrust upon him by adoring, worshipful fans, providing both hope and solace. “So your presentation went terrible…/ Don’t despair, you’ll get it right tomorrow night…/ I believe in you and your PowerPoint…/ Recommit yourself to the healing of the world and the welfare of all creatures upon it,” he encourages a despondent grad student in lead single “Postdoc Blues.” It’s the gently reassuring words we often need to hear when everything seems to be spiraling out of control.

And when it gets too complicated/ When you can’t get to sleep/ When the morning seems impossible/ Select all delete.” This is not so much an early exit as a reassessment, a reprioritization of what is really important, of what can stay and what needs to go. Too often we allow ourselves to get bogged down in the details of minor setbacks that in turn feel magnified ten-fold as our mind warps our perception of reality. Yet, by using this simple technological metaphor, Samson shows just how easily we can – if we really try – reprogram ourselves to focus on what’s most important.

Largely forgoing modern technology himself, Samson eschews these 21st century forms of interpersonal communication not because he is a luddite, but rather because he sees the value in direct personal connection. On “17th Street Treatment Centre,” addicts of all kinds come together to seek comfort in one another and find a place in which they can be understood. “Most of us probably not getting better/ But not getting better together,” he sings, underscoring the single most important part of this humanistic approach to life in a world dominated by technology: we might not get it right, we might not be changing the way we had hoped, but we are doing it together as a community trying to do the best we can.

A proud Canadian, “Oldest Oak at Brookside” finds Samson going back in time to explore the history of his beloved city of Winnipeg, a return not necessarily to simplicity but to an understanding of one’s literal and figurative roots, using the titular oak as witness to a lifetime of change. Similarly, he pays homage to fellow Canadian Neil Young on several occasions, most prominently on “Vampire Alberta Blues.” Ostensibly referencing On the Beach’s “Vampire Blues,” the song itself borrows more structurally and tonally from “Southern Man,” from Samson’s spot-on Youngian nasal whine to the strangled guitar solo that helped elevate Young to the status of grunge icon.

There’s so much going on lyrically that it takes several listens to even begin parsing out the often multiple meanings within each. It’s not until the final, crushing line of “Requests” – “I want you to know what I forgive you for/ Now that you’re all ashes anyway” – that you recall the first half’s “I want you to write my name under your name/ With the year I was born and you began to disappear” and realize the weight of each statement. And, as with any great writer, it’s easy to return time and again to take comfort in the words. Winter Wheat might not be the best thing Samson has ever done, but it’s more lyrically and thematically profound than nearly anything else to have come out this year. Samson is the voice of reason and reassurance we need in these increasingly tenuous times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Various Artists: Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987

The kind of compilation that lends itself to countless hours spent venturing further down …