I was a teenager and a punk when I first heard John K Samson singing. When that first Weakerthans record, “Fallow”, emerged in 1997 I’d only briefly caught a glimpse of it in the avalanche of heavier, angrier records on my stereo. But 2000’s “Left & Leaving” hit me like a blast of cold air, blowing cobwebs out of my mind. I sat in a van on tour and listened to it on repeat for weeks, wondering where this voice came from, and where it might be going.
Eleven years and many miles later, I was in Hamburg watching the Weakerthans play a show, hanging out with the band afterwards and making friends. John mentioned that he was working on a solo project, and when we next crossed paths, in Winnipeg in the fall, he gave me a copy to listen to. Sometimes an artist or a writer with whom you are familiar, almost over-comfortable, restates their brilliance in a way that takes you back to the first time their voice broke through the static. Such a record is “Provincial”.
I’m from a small town in the rural south of England, and as such, a record about the geography of four roads in the great expanses of Manitoba shouldn’t, perhaps, resonate. John’s gift is that it does. Within his personal journeys into the heartlands of his landscape, he draws enough truth about the human condition out into the open to connect with anyone who has ever felt alone, awkward, lost, or cold, and indeed warm, loved or nostalgic. To put it another way, this is the only record I’ve ever heard which opens with a song about GPS that brought a tear to my eye.
Across twelve beautiful individual portraits, John weaves stories and pictures of old cars, icy landscapes, grad school procrastination and ampersands. I’m always fascinated by his use of language, the range of his vocabulary and imagery, so far away from the usual tired cliches of rock ‘n’ roll. Like most other people I know who work with words and music, I feel like John stands apart as a bona fide writer, as opposed to just another hack knocking syllables around until they fall into line with the Bonham beats and power chords. No one else I can think of could sing a petition to recognise a forgotten hockey player, and draw me into the sepia sentiment to the point where I’m ready to sign up for the cause.
But I don’t want to fall into the familiar trap of only praising John for his lyrics. The music on this record is full of as much poise and longing as any of the words. The aching horns on “Highway One East” ease you into the picture, the spindly guitar work on “Grace General” draws you further into the horizon, while the lighter good-time feel of “Cruise Night” and “When I write My Master’s Thesis” lightens the heart for the journey through the cold night.
The whole thing comes together as an exquisite portrait of, well, something – and that, to me, is the sign of a great work of art. I can’t write down here exactly what this album is about, or where it takes me, or how it makes me feel. In the final analysis my own words fall short, and I’d just have to play you the damn record to explain my love for it. The pinnacle of the whole thing, for me, is the song “Heart Of The Continent”. It’s one of those songs which is so simple that, as a songwriter myself, I’m sort of kicking myself for not chancing across that melody and structure myself a long time ago. And yet I could never have created something like this; the rising melody, the simple pictures of sudden disorientation and loss, and the final, enigmatic image of being lost in the “crumpled dark” tells me something about myself I never was quite able to say.
This is a record to savour and enjoy. Like Springsteen’s “Nebraska”, it’s an intimate portrait of a place usually forgotten by the geography of popular music, but one which ultimately shines a brighter light on the roads more often travelled by the listener. I’m lucky to count John as a friend, but luckier still to have “Provincial” in my life. You need it too.