Winter Wheat is about preservation and perseverance. Drown out the lyrics, though, and that might not be so clear—there’s a chilliness to these 15 songs, many of which shiver with the kind of stark weariness that’s long suffused John K. Samson’s vocals. The once-Weakerthans frontman’s insectoid croon works wonders in this mode, where it can oscillate between isolation and wonder with just the slightest shifts in pitch and emphasis. As he did on 2012’s lovely, literate Provincial, Samson sings from the point of view of several distinct characters, most of whom reside in his home base of Winnipeg. They’re also caught, as we all are in this generation, in that liminal space between comfort and progress. Samson has said the album is about “nostalgia” and seems particularly interested in the generation of people—himself included—that has functioned both before and after the proliferation of the internet.
Refreshingly, Winter Wheat isn’t here to scold the smartphone-owning. “I don’t mean to miss the good old days,” Samson sings on solemn opener “Select All Delete.” “The good old days were mostly bad.” What he’s more interested in is transition. Human contact has undergone seismic change with the advent of PCs and mobile devices; how are we, as living, breathing people in need of corporeal connection, coping with that? For the protagonist of “Postdoc Blues,” a clumsy academic reliant on dongles and PowerPoint presentations, it’s self-help adages that, in this age of disconnect and irony, have taken on new resonance—“pursue a practice that will strengthen your heart,” he reads from a laminate in his pocket. Elsewhere, the unhinged quizmaster of “Quiz Night At Looky Lou’s” and “Alpha Adept” retreats into delusions of a new life on another planet “where everyone is happier and tall.”
Throughout it all, Samson’s lyrics tend to linger on buildings, trees, and landmarks, things we can touch. Sometimes, we have to remember they’re still there and that it’s on us to ensure they’ll continue to be there. These are hopeful, triumphant themes, but what Samson captures so well is the melancholy lurking beneath progress, the sense that we’re in the midst of perpetual loss. This makes for a provoking listen, but also a heavy one. Though simple, Samson’s delivery and arrangements hang with the weight of a thick morning fog.
Samson worked with numerous collaborators here, including his Weakerthans cohorts Greg Smith and Jason Tait, but Winter Wheat has the intimate feel of a solo project. Songs are typically built around Samson’s voice and guitar work, with light flourishes—the plinks of a piano, a rumbling melodica—added for texture. There are a few exceptions: “Fellow Traveller” could be a Weakerthans B-side with its driving percussion and twee harmonies, while “Vampire Alberta Blues” asserts itself with an unsettling barrage of distortion. But, as on Provincial, it’s the simplest songs that resonate strongest. Album highlight “17th Street Treatment Centre,” a portrait of rehabilitation and community, sets Samson’s vivid descriptions of the patients (“the Serbian Deadhead who wears his sunglasses ‘so no one can see at my eyes’”) against a melancholy strain of electric strums. No note is wasted.
“17th Street Treatment Centre” is also notable for bringing back a Weakerthans favorite: Virtute The Cat, who we last saw lost in the city and crying out for its hapless, neglectful owner. Here, we watch that owner trying to get clean, with the cat manifesting in his mind during the sweet, heartrending closer “Virtute At Rest.” It’s beautiful the way Samson works them into his themes of addiction, perseverance, and memory. Keeping the past alive is the best way to ensure we aren’t dragging our heels into the future.