In their seminal works, both Sherwood Anderson and Italo Calvino practice the delicate art of circumnavigation. There are themes at the center of Winesburg, Ohio and Invisible Cities, but the books don’t so much engage with those themes as much they do, bit by bit, cut out everything except for them. Anderson’s book is a collection of short stories, linked together to create a portrait of not only the titular town but also the stifling interpersonal barricades that the interwar period ushered in across the country. Calvino’s book isn’t a treatise on how urban planning leads to class inequality; it’s a book-length reverie where Marco Polo describes his fantastical travels to a myriad of different cities to a dying Kubla Kahn, despite the fact that the two do not share a language. Still, the cumulative effect of reading about so many cities which, despite their wondrous characteristics, have citizens who are barred off from one another in one way or another, stirs up thoughts of inequality. Neither Winesburg, Ohio or Invisible Cities are overtly political works or even remotely allegorical, but the politics are there, right at the unspoken center.
I don’t know if the Weakerthans are still my favorite band. It’s been nearly 6 years (!@!@) since they recorded a new song, and close to a decade since they recorded an album of songs that I loved end to end. Despite the fact that they’ve made some intensely moving, life-saving music, their slow-loris pace and the mediocre quality of their last album makes it hard to justify the number one spot. The problem I had with Reunion Tour, The Weakerthans’ early 2007 album, was that principal songwriter John K Samson was trying to tell us stories and he almost did it right. Samson has a background in poetry as much as he has a background in punk, so the words themselves were never the issue, nor was his conviction. The problem was closer to (one of the hundreds of huge) problems I have with the writer Jonathan Franzen. In Franzen’s work, all the characters talk and act like Jonathan Franzen, and if they don’t…honestly, I can’t finish that thought because I can’t think of an exception to the rule. The character sketches on Reunion Tour were all in Samson’s voice, which worked fine for the songs which embodied buildings or ghosts, but worked poorly for the songs about the Dot Com CEO, the guy who claims to have seen Bigfoot, the sad curling player, the man whose botched infant circumcision destroyed his penis and so was raised as a girl. These characters, all interesting and deserving of songs by a careful, empathetic writer like Samson, do not deserve songs where they come off like variations on John K Samson. Reunion Tour has some strikingly good and memorable songs, but a lot of it feels awkward. This is a long way of saying that I didn’t know what to expect when listening to John K Samson’s recently released solo album, Provincial.
I am happy, I am ecstatic, and with a few months of listening to it, I am absolutely certain I’m not saying this as an apologetic Weakerthans fan trying to introduce people to the group, to report that Provincial is a great album. First off, it is a radically different album than those by the Weakerthans. It is generally quieter than the band’s efforts, and its louder moments are blunter and less glassy. But more important than its beautiful music (and it is beautiful music, featuring members of the Constantines, Fembots, and Samson’s wife and fellow singer songwriter Christine Fellows) is that Samson’s stories are varied, and their voices spot-on. Here we get the heartbreak of the middle school teacher in love with her principal (I mean, just reading lines like “The Last And”’s “But I know from how you worry at your wedding band/That I’m just your little ampersand” almost makes me well up. So many songwriters would have overdone this, but not Samson. He keeps it quiet). We get the jitters of the latent manchild academic (“When I Write My Masters Thesis”’s hilariously heroic refrain “It’s all gonna change when I write my master’s thesis”). We get the 17 year old kid who desperately wants to borrow his parents car for the old Winnipeg tradition of Cruise Night (“Dude, just make it happen. I can’t take another week/of feeling lame with the same old tin can on my ten speed”). Just as importantly, we get a Winnipeg, the city which these people inhabit, more vivid and intimate than Samson was previously willing to show us. It’s a place of “crumpled dark” (“Heart of the Continent”) where “the Atlantic and Pacific are the very same far away”. (“Longitudinal Center”) It’s a place where the GPS fails- “some sarcastic sarcastic satellite say’s I’m not anywhere”, (“Highway 1 East”) and where the radio stations offer “tumors of evangelists and ads for vinyl siding“. (“Highway 1 West”) The Winnipeg of Provincial is not an overwhelmingly depressing place, but it is one which sometimes lacks the T-Cells needed to fix certain kinds of wounds.
Like Calvino, Like Anderson, Like Winnipeg’s other great contemporary artist export Guy Maddin, Samson’s Provincial feels honest and genuine because it goes to such lengths to avoid a singular point or point of view. And, I would argue, the politics present in Provincial pass my muster more easily than the vitriolic rants of Samson’s old punk band Propagandhi. Ironically, the more Samson looses himself in these songs, the more sincere and truthful they become. Honest is perhaps the highest praise I can give to Provincial. Something tells me Samson would be happy to hear it.
Also, this is the time of year or, maybe more generally, the time for almost-anthems. Here you go.
“Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)” is a Broken Social Scene track recorded on KCRW.