Published Oct 19, 2016John K. Samson's name will occasionally come up in discussions about Canada's greatest lyricists alongside Gord Downie, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, and his second solo album, Winter Wheat, makes yet another strong case that he's not cited often enough.
Winter Wheat is fairly comparable to Samson's debut Provincial, though broader in scope and subject matter. His lyrics are varied, vivid and heavily inspired — by novels, documentaries, history books and more — as he tests the boundaries of his literary creativity, exploring a vast range of narratives, perspectives and topics. His substantial Neil Young influence (particularly 1974's On the Beach) is quite apparent, perhaps nowhere more than on "Vampire Alberta Blues." The song, with a title taken right from one of Don Grungio's own, has a distinctly Youngian feel to it while extending an anti-oil industry message, the kind that Young has been spreading for decades.
Along with fossil fuels, he pinpoints other "addictions" — to drugs ("17th Street Treatment Centre"), say, or to screens ("Select All Delete") — as he weaves personal and socio-political messages (a return to form after the more geographical and research-driven Provincial) amid characteristically intriguing tales either real or imagined, and more often both.
In several instances, Samson commits himself to happy — or at least, less sad — endings to these stories. "Postdoc Blues" is a dim yet poppy single that empathizes with dissatisfaction and bitterness, but at the end offers a pep talk: "Recommit yourself to the healing of the world and to the welfare of all creatures upon it / Pursue a practice that will strengthen your heart." The easygoing "Alpha Adept" picks up where its preceding track left off, giving a hopelessly delusional character an ending that suggests peace. And then there's the tearjerker "Virtute at Rest," which brings a heartbreaking multi-part story from the Weakerthans' days to a rewardingly bittersweet end.
Along with Samson's wife Christine Fellows — who deserves praise for her role in recording, producing and performing on the record — two former Weakerthans (drummer Jason Tait and bassist Greg Smith) lend their services on the album; in fact, Samson has said Winter Wheat feels somewhat like a new Weakerthans record. While there are indeed shades of the band — the slow, spacious "Carrie Ends the Call" has a Left and Leaving feel, the gorgeous "Winter Wheat" echoes Reconstruction Site classic "One Great City!" and the captivatingly odd "Quiz Night at Looky Lou's" bears a resemblance to Reunion Tour's spoken-word "Elegy for Gump Worsley" — these songs have, overall, their own character attributable to Samson alone.
The musical accompaniment doesn't always completely live up to the moods and settings evoked so strongly in his lyrics, but it's usually enough to make the words leap off the page. (Anti)