Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Review: Provincial by John K. Samson

Not a poetry post, but you need this album in your life. A huge fan of The Weakerthans for a few years now, I was pretty excited when I heard that lead singer, John K.Samson, had assembled a full album of his own material. I won’t bore you with too much factual guff on Samson and his musical career other than to categorically state that he is, in my opinion, the world’s best living lyricist, possibly of all time. That, of course, is a monumentally grand claim, but I honestly believe he is a real poet, penning better lines than half of the so-called greats. Anyway, if you are inclined to search his stuff out, I would recommend starting with his band’s second album, Left and Leaving, before you listen to this – the more ‘full’ sound of his Weakerthans material is probably an easier route ‘in’ to his work.

The first thing that is patently obvious when listening to Provincial is how much Samson is effected by, and ambivalent to, his Canadian landscape, particularly Manitoba. The conceit threading together this album is journeys, and in Canada they don’t get much more epic. The first song, ‘Highway 1East’, serves as a kind of epigraph on top of an epigraph. The album notes feature a quote from the poet Karen Solie: ‘Everything happens here, then nothing / for a long long time’. Samson broods similarly: ‘some sarcastic satellite says that I’m not anywhere’. We know, if we’ve ever used a Sat-Nav system on a long journey, precisely what he means: our technological tools make a mockery of us when we rely too heavily on them.

If there are radio-friendly pop songs on this album, they don’t come catchier than ‘Cruise Night’. This is Samson at his best: a deceptively simple, hook-filled guitar melody, an almost blasé rock ’n’ roll drum beat, and the apparently prosaic lyrics that say so much of everyday situations. Who hasn’t simply done as Samson sings and driven in one direction then turned around, for the thrill of nothing more than feeling all those pistons and horsepower through the wheel?

The allusions to video games in Provincial are brilliantly captured and as with nearly everything Samson writes, serve as microcosms for worlds and characters that shine a light on our own. In ‘When I Write My Master’s Thesis’, Samson opens: ‘Oh the streets of Grand Theft Auto San Andreas fill with smoke. The doorbell rings, I put my controller down, then pick it up and shoot some things.’ Again, it’s a scene most of us are familiar with, but Samson imbues it with substance, altering its meaning. That opening – ‘oh, the streets...’ – a song writing cliché if ever there was one, is tipped on its head in the next bar; the bathos flawlessly balancing nerd and masters student.

In the middle of the album, Samson juxtaposes the tenderness of ‘Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San’ with the gutsy, jagged ‘Longitudinal Centre’. The songs work very well on their own, but it is their arrangement, in the above order respectively, that makes me really admire Samson’s craft. Take ‘Letter in Icelandic...’, with its simple chords, brushed snares and lilting violins and contrast it to ‘Longitudinal Centre’, the heaviest song Samson has recorded since his time in Propagandhi, and you get an ideal crux for an album; a hinge on which both sides expertly hang. Don’t let that last fragment fool you, though: the heaviness is an earned one, and it achieves those crushing drums and piercing riff because of lines that make you want to smile and cry at the same time. I feel compelled to quote an entire section in full, but the effect can’t be fully realised until you hear the lyrics with the music: ‘The sun pulls me out a bit and lets me go, and I’m a vacuum power cord in the back of that van full of kids cleaning carpets for the Lord, so I make a little list of sounds that have comforted us in the past: the roar of the rumble strips, and the Mennomite metre of the flood forecast, or how the wind strums on those signs that say the Atlantic and Pacific are the very same far away.’

I mean, come on, that’s genius, is it not? The album winds down, coming (almost) full circle, at least thematically, on the penultimate track, ‘Highway 1 West’. The refrain, ‘too far to walk to anywhere from here’ rounds off the feelings of isolation, of vastness, of being a speck of dust on the gargantuan map of Canada. But it’s the last song, ‘Taps Reversed’, featuring the excellent vocals of Samson’s wife, Christine Fellows, that really ends this album in the best way. Functioning as a sort of mock cutesy ballad for an old house, the dual vocals punctuate a dour, wannabe jumpy piano, stopping the song from sliding into forced pathos. If the stunning line – ‘the sidewalk cracks spell the way back home in one uninterrupted palindrome’ – don’t reflect Samson’s talent and honesty, then I don’t know what does. I sincerely urge you to seek this album out, then everything else by The Weakerthans. You will not regret it.

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