I’m going to see The Weakerthans in concert this weekend for the third time. It will be the first concert I’ve been to in awhile, and probably will be the last I’ll go to for awhile, so to get the full experience, I decided to pick my top five songs from their four album catalogue. The group’s greatest strength is easily John K. Samson’s poet laureate-level lyrics, which strike a perfect balance between playful cleverness and emotional connection. But another thing I really appreciate about The Weakerthans’ music is how overwhelmingly Canadian it is.
A problem we Canadians often have is defining what is unique about our culture, and what is mere adaptation of either our neighbours to the South or our old colonial masters. One of the reasons this is a problem is that those that should be our cultural arbiters and touchstones — our artists, musicians, and writers — often relinquish their role in culture-building for the understandably pragmatic reasons of wanting to reach a larger audience than our population can support. So Douglas Coupland sets his early novels in American cities, and Neil Young becomes an icon of American Southern rock. But not The Weakerthans, who litter their songs with references to Canadian subjects like curling, loonies, the GST, hockey, and of course, their hometown of Winnipeg. They’re like sort of like a less famous version of The Tragically Hip in that way, only they don’t suck (yeah, I said it).
And with that, on to the list…
Honourable Mention: “One Great City!” from Reconstruction Site (2003)
This is the first Weakerthans song that I really noticed, as it’s hard not to take notice of a song that proclaims “the Guess Who sucks, the Jets were lousy anyway” before announcing “I hate Winnipeg”. It’s one of the great “fuck this town” songs, it would have been easy for this song to be gimmicky, but Samson overcomes this by fusing the tongue-in-cheek moments in the song with genuine pathos. It helps that after the ironic title (based on the city’s motto), the song isn’t really cheeky, or even angry, so much as it’s a weary lament about the band’s love/hate relationship with their hometown, a lament I’ve heard from pretty much everyone I’ve ever met from Winnipeg. One problem, which isn’t the fault of the band or the song, but when they play it live, people tend to join in with the chorus a little too enthusiastically, as though they’re in on the joke. Which always makes me wonder if the band takes a little offense, in the no-one-picks-on-my-little-brother-but-me way, as not everyone in a Calgary audience could be from Winnipeg.
5. “Tournament of Hearts” from Reunion Tour (2007)
The quintessential Weakerthans song, “Tournament of Hearts” is a prime example of everything I mentioned in the preamble about what I like about the band. How could you not enjoy a song that playfully uses curling references to describe its protagonists inability to communicate with his significant other? And how could it get more Canadian than doing a song about curling, borrowing its name from the women’s tournament that used to always annoy me when it preempted Monday Night RAW on TSN? As much fun as this uptempo number is (and it is a lot of fun), it manages genuine poignancy describing a guy avoiding confrontation while feeling the condescending glares from the photograph of the senior bonspiel winners, circa 1963. Which makes the song more than simply the best song ever written about ice bowling.
4. “Left and Leaving” from Left and Leaving (2000)
Early examples of the band’s work exhibited a little less of the playfulness that makes the band so fun these days, but established the melancholy that pervades most of their work (even their seemingly quirky recent songs). Of those, few are as emotionally naked and melancholy as this track, examining the tried and true topic of loneliness and yearning from a more straight-up approach than other songs on this list. It just slays me; every time. The sparse production meshes with Samson’s wistful voice to create a song that perfectly captures “the best parts of lonely”, a sentiment not expressed often enough. It’s true that loneliness is largely a negative thing, yet there’s something wonderfully indulgent about the experience that often gets missed, which might partially explain the appeal of sad songs like this one. So if you’ve ever missed someone who’s gone away, or especially if you are missing them now, let this song be your guide while you “count yellow highway lines that [your loved one is] relying on to lead [them] home”.
3. “Reconstruction Site” from Reconstruction Site (2003)
The title track off of the band’s third (and best) album, “Reconstruction Site” continues with the album’s theme of emotional recovery. It’s not an album of sad songs, but rather the reconstruction that comes after those songs. In this song, the protagonist looks to put his misery behind him through the power of nostalgia. I love stories that can make me feel nostalgic for a past I never had, as it’s a powerful emotion and a difficult trick to pull off. Samson shows off his storytelling chops by reminiscing about a small-town parade and the sleepy memories of a child at a wedding reception in 1973, bolstered by these memories to disassemble his despair, as “it never took me anywhere”. The time for dwelling in the negative is over, as there’s a whole past of great memories to live in for awhile.
2. “Plea from a Cat Named Virtute” from Reconstruction Site (2003)
Continuing with the theme of reconstruction is this song, told from the perspective of a cat (yes, a song told from the perspective of a cat, and it is as awesome as you’d imagine such a song to be) whose owner has been wallowing in self pity for far too long. Virtute does what she can to snap her owner out of his funk throughout the song, offering to throw a party with tabby from two doors down, and even the owner’s sister (provided, of course, that she doesn’t bring the basset hound). She’s quite the understanding cat, but her patience does have it’s limits, as she threatens to “bite you hard and taste your tinny blood” if he doesn’t cheer up soon. The band revisits the Virtute character with “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure” a song that might even be better than this one, but is is just too painful for me to list as a favourite. I listened to it before work the other day, and it put me in funk all morning, thinking about how she could no longer “remember the sound that you found for me”. I actually might need a moment to compose myself right now.
1. “Civil Twilight” from Reunion Tour (2007)
Probably their biggest hit, “Civil Twilight” topped CBC Radio 3’s R3-30 charts for five weeks. Of course, “hit” is a relative term when you’re talking about topping an indie rock chart on an obscure Canadian radio program. Already in this list, we’ve had love and loss examined from the perspective of a cat, a despondant curler, and the memories of a young boy. This time out, Samson examines the attempts of a Winnipeg city bus driver to ignore his heartbreak and regret by escaping into the monotony of his route. It’s this ability to explore the same theme that roughly three-quarters of all pop songs explore in a unique way that makes The Weakerthans music so special. That they can do it with a song that seems more like a rocking toe-tapper than a melancholy lament only adds to their appeal, giving each song layers that are as fun to peel back as they are rewarding.