Left and Leaving: An Essential Weakerthans Playlist
Published Jul 17, 2015Earlier this week, beloved Winnipeg indie rockers the Weakerthans broke the hearts of Canadian music fans everywhere when drummer Jason Tait confirmed that the band were no more. Sure, they hadn't put out a proper album since 2007's Reunion Tour, but there was something so familiar and comforting about their accessible yet poetic brand of rock'n'roll that it was hard to imagine a Canadian musical landscape without them. And although fans probably shouldn't expect an actual reunion tour from the Weakerthans any time soon, there's plenty of solace to be found in the work they've left behind.
As such, Exclaim! has revisited some of our favourite Weakerthans tunes, compiling a list of the group's most cherished and essential songs (presented numerically but not ranked in order of quality). We know the band may roll their eyes at this, but we're so glad that they existed. So, without further ado, here are just a few of "The Reasons" why we (unlike Virtute the cat) will always remember the sound the Weakerthans made for us.
7. "One Great City!"
Contrary to the title's exclamatory statement, "One Great City!" doesn't roar with enthusiasm for John K. Samson's Winnipeg hometown. In fact, the song's standout refrain is "I hate Winnipeg." Samson's visions of underground malls and delayed transit are those of pure disdain; it's an ode to a love-hate relationship that we can all attest to having felt at some point, be it towards a time, a place or a person. And whether or not we've ever set foot in Winnipeg, we can all relate to the sentiment behind what is arguably one of the Weakerthans' best songs/one of the best songs ever, written about a Canadian city. It's a simple, sincere and direct arrow to our maple-drenched hearts.
6. "Plea from a Cat Named Virtute"
The Weakerthans were the first band I ever interviewed, and I remember the immense glee and sense of superiority I felt getting a copy of Reconstruction Site a few weeks before its release. Though not their best album (that would be Left and Leaving), its fifth track, "Plea from a Cat Named Virtute," remains, to me, the quintessential Weakerthans song. The driving rhythm and repeating riff made it a live favourite, but lyrically, the song typified John K. Samson's surrealist storytelling.
The song breathes new life into old themes, offering a pep talk to a depressed, and, perhaps slightly unhinged person from the point of view of their frustrated cat. As someone struggling with their own bout of early 20s malaise, I could sympathize with both characters. Little did I know that the record would, in its own small way, point the way forward for the next dozen years of my life.
5. "Sun in an Empty Room"
"Sun in an Empty Room" features a cornucopia of what made Canadian indie rock in the mid-aughts — and, of course, the Weakerthans — great. There's the theme of longing hinted at in the lyrics, a swinging, sing-along refrain, and the slow build to a guitar solo. It's an upbeat jam — even without leaning on current indie rock cliches like people clapping along and shouting "Hey!" — but "Sun in an Empty Room" isn't necessarily a happy song. It's more reflective, a tune made for sharing, the kind that sounds even better with one earbud handed off to a friend. As one of the last songs off the final Weakerthans album, it's a beautiful, repeatedly playable sign-off for the band.
Left and Leaving
"Aside" paints a vivid picture of the awkward moment when adolescence butts up against adulthood. Over a giddy rush of pop-punk distortion, frontman John K. Samson lists off a string of neuroses: the narrator here is physically insecure, scared of just about anything and distancing himself from the real world through a mix of alcohol, irony and cartography.
And yet, as bleak as the lyrics are, they're also funny: after rattling off a series of personal failings in the first verse, Samson declares, "I am so much better than I used to be," as the crunchy chords swell up triumphantly behind him. And when he realizes that he is turning into all of the things that he used to hate when he was younger, he decides, "But it almost feels okay." In the final moments of the song, the narrator refers to the song as "my imperfect offering." He's wrong, though; this celebration of weakness is absolutely perfect.
3. "Reconstruction Site"
While Fallow and Left and Leaving found John K. Samson exploring a more melody-centric mode of musical expression than Propagandhi, his songwriting retained the punk inflections of his previous band, resulting in the kind of chiming, emo-tinged indie rock sound that a number of bands — Death Cab for Cutie, the Mountain Goats — were busy perfecting at the same time.
Reconstruction Site was the album on which the band's sound broadened, deepened; "Reconstruction Site" was the song. Samson and company reveal a taste for Americana in the clean guitar noodling and rambling lyrical style of the title track's verses, and the way they slide down into the chorus sends shivers every time, as though you're slipping with Samson into the moments he describes with such nuance.
The two choruses aren't the same, lyrically; it seemed, always, but especially on "Reconstruction Site," like Samson had too much to say, as his lyrics' attention to detail belied his feigned nihilism. If none of this matters, why document it so finely?
2. "Left and Leaving"
Left and Leaving
One of John K. Samson's finest skills as a songwriter is his ability to capture the complicated relationship with one's geographical surroundings, twisting them into musical metaphors. On "Left and Leaving," his decrepit city serves as a reflection of his melancholy mindset. From the literal, glass-covered sidewalks of his barely breathing city "watching me think about you," he transitions to the metaphysical — memories evoked through mundane objects like matches, blankets and old birthday cards.
The song perfectly captures the frustrating familiarity of a hometown you hate but will always be intrinsically tied to — and the people, feelings and memories that come with it. Samson's adept knack for taking those feelings and turning them into simple, heartbreaking music is showcased perfectly on "Left and Leaving," making it an obvious Weakerthans classic.
1. "Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)"
Maybe the funniest song in their catalogue, "Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)" is certainly their most compellingly absurd. Imagine a rock band offering up a tune that not only name-checks two French post-structuralist philosophers (alongside Ernest Shackleton and a Francophone penguin), but does so with authority and playful grace. At their world-beating best, the Weakerthans spoke directly into the ear of graduate students across the world, while somehow managing to sound neither pretentious nor superior.
That's partly due to the fact that when they wanted to rock, as they do here, they could play with a ferocious intensity that only amplified the appeal of their unlikely lyrics. A punk band fronted by a sensitive bookworm who could spin magical, endlessly memorable poetic visions into singable words, the Weakerthans changed my expectations for what a rock'n'roll band could sound like. "Thank you for the flowers," goes one of the catchiest melodic lines in this song, "and the book by Derrida." And we all sang along.