Elizabethan sonnets? Backwards tape loops? Brass fanfares? French philosophy? Thematic arcs? Literary allusions? Penguins? This is punk?
Well, in a word, no. These are The Weakerthans. And anybody who's been paying attention to hometown singer-guitarist John K. Samson and his bandmates until now knows that while they are many things -- including a punk band -- they have always been more brawny, beer-swilling bruisers.
Just how much more, though, is made decisively and impressively obvious on the band's third full-length Reconstruction Site. It's their first release for the influential and respected indie label Epitaph. In a nice bit of synchronicity, it's also their most inspired, coherent, adventurous, engrossing and fully realized work. A disc that clearly establishes the reed-thin, reedy-voiced Samson as the most gifted and creative songwriter this city has produced in a generation. A disc that finds the other talented members of The Weakerthans -- guitarist and keyboardist Stephen Carroll, bassist John P. Sutton and drummer-percussionist Jason Tait -- matching him stride for stride with their bold and expressive musical contributions.
Ultimately, though, the Ian Blurton-produced Reconstruction Site is also a disc guaranteed to challenge -- and perhaps even alienate -- the fair-weather fans in the audience. A concept album about coping with grief, loss, regret and failure, this 14-track song cycle is anything but a teenage beer-drinking party record. Rather, it's the sort of album you listen to through headphones, late at night with the lights extinguished. Like the complex and difficult worlds they illuminate, Samson's songs and the band's sonic treatments are rich in detailed craftsmanship, with plenty of unsettling textures, daring experiments and recurring lyrical and melodic imagery.
Opener Manifest unveils Samson's enigmatic and surreal mission statement -- "I want to call requests through heating-vents, and hear them answered with a whisper, 'No' " -- delivered in iambic pentameter, driven by a martial rhythm and punctuated with a trumpet fanfare worthy of a Broadway overture. Pay attention and you'll notice the Shakespearean-sonnet construction and graceful melody resurface in the album's creepy, reverse-echo centrepiece Hospital Vespers and the mournful closer Past-Due, creating a thematic birth-to-death arc for the album.
Between those milestones, the literary Samson -- for the first time jettisoning his first-person confessions for third-person narratives -- offers up tales with lyrics as rich as poetry and narratives as cleverly compact as good short stories. The darkly lazy Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call visits an old boys' club whose confines are both comforting and claustrophobic. The protagonist of the gently flowing Time's Arrow longs for a real-life do-over, expressed in counter-clockwise lyrics like "You whisper your arrival walking backwards to the door." The churning rocker Uncorrected Proofs and the loping alt-country twanger A New Name for Everything find their characters rewriting and rebuilding their lives from broken pieces. And the fuzzy slogger The Prescience of Dawn, with its searing guitar cyclones and lyrics like "The sirens woke me up again / I know they're coming for me someday, just a matter of when," is an unnerving tale of fetal-position paranoia and grief that boils down to four simple words: "You should have known."
Thankfully, Samson knows enough to balance all this heaviness with some of the most light-hearted songs he's written. The churning and poppy Plea From a Cat Named Virtute details a charming case of feline intervention on behalf of a depressed master. The grandly titled first single Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961) is a jaunty, rollicking ditty of senility and hallucination. The Reasons is the prettiest and most direct love song Samson has penned. And the folksy One Great City!, his jaundiced view of Winnipeg boosterism and low civic self-esteem, boasts a magnificently singable refrain -- "I ... hate ... Winnipeg" -- that is either the best chorus of the year or the worst, depending on whether you know what Samson is really talking about.
Either way, here's one thing we know for sure: With Reconstruction Site, John K. Samson and The Weakerthans have put together the one of the most compelling and distinctive discs you'll hear this year. Even if it ain't punk.
(More on The Weakerthans)
2. The Reasons
3. Reconstruction Site
4. Psalm For The Elks Lodge Last Call
5. Plea From A Cat Named Virtute
6. Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault In Paris, 1961)
7. Time's Arrows
8. Hospital Vespers
9. Uncorrected Proofs
10. New Name For Everything
11. One Great City!
13. Prescience Of Dawn