R.I.P. THE WEAKERTHANS
There are those band break-ups that you can spot coming from a mile away, and those that blindside you. Somewhere in between lies the news of the disbanding of Canadian folk/punk mainstays The Weakerthans. The band hasn't been the most active in the past 8 years or so, but have still done some festival circuit touring (as well as singer John K. Samson's excellent 2012 solo record Provincial) and never really hinted at any sort of band conflict.
Dan Ozzi at Vice did an excellent job eulogizing the band, but I still feel the need to put my two cents in about the band. When explained on paper, The Weakerthans seem as if they're directed right into that sappy, primordial sludge that is the world of 2000's emo punk. Melodic pop-leaning songs sung by humble guys who buy their sweaters a couple sizes too big so they can wear their heart on their sleeves just a little bit more prominently. (Even writing that grosses me out.) Something about The Weakerthans was different, though. While the music may not have thrown a ton of challenges into the fray, John Samson's lyrics are flat out masterpieces. Maybe it was the phase of my life I was in (leaving college, joining the work force, finally becoming a grown adult and dealing with the gravity of family getting older, growing away from friends, the blessing/curse of unaccounted-for time, and that pining for home that we all fight for the rest of our lives after leaving the nest), but Samson's lyrics summarized so much of what I was feeling at that moment in so much more beautiful and poetic ways than I was ever capable of. He never wrote songs from some overly dramatic, damaged place like so many bands did. While other bands were clumsily obsessing with ripping their hearts out and slitting their wrists, Samson never sounded desperate. He always sounded dignified.
Samson constantly observed the minutiae of his surroundings, affected but not overwhelmed, and skewed nostalgic for simpler times. You can hear every synapse of John Samson's brain firing inside these songs, soaking in the finer details of the world and parsing out the poetry. It's a beautiful cacophony of hardwood floors, cat daydreams, gently patinated photographs of distant relatives/curling clubs/arctic explorers, garage sales, and finding love amongst the wrecking balls. Samson's voice, at first, is slightly grating in it's uniqueness. Over some of the quieter songs, he comes off as meek and frail, with the listener feeling slightly sorry for the guy until you realize he's not complaining, but unashamedly figuring things out as he goes along.
One of The Weakerthans' finest moments comes during "Plea From A Cat Named Virtute", a song written from the perspective of a cat. It's a shining example of what makes Samson an incredible songwriter; the ability to write from an unpredictable place about these mundane day-to-day details without coming off as sappy or trying too hard. In "Plea", the cat chides his owner for being a boring playmate ("all you really want to do is drink and watch TV/and frankly that thing doesn't really interest me"), takes him to task for his art ("And listen/about those bitter songs you sing/they're not helping anything/they won't make you strong"), suggests throwing a party and inviting the neighborhood cats, and showcases the cat as a wise, supportive companion before ending in a beautiful explosion of melody. It's an absolutely fucking perfect song.
On his own, Samson is an astounding artist and poet. Add in the rest of The Weakerthans and their impeccable ear for warm tones and dynamic dexterity, of knowing when to ramp up and when to leave space between the notes, and you've got a band that comfortably writes revved-up punk anthems beside gentle, atmospheric folk balladry that never feels forced or out of scope. It doesn't hurt having Jason Tait (now of Bahamas), one of the most musical drummers I've ever heard in my life, manning the kit. Tait always anchors the songs perfectly, giving them an impeccable balance of dynamics, handing delicate swing and powerful crashing passages with equal vigor, and managing to incorporate creative passages into what could easily be simple 4/4 blowouts. (Confession: I listened to Left and Leaving pretty exclusively when I got my first drum kit in 2001, and did my best to use Tait's playing as a drum tutor, so my tastes may be pretty skewed.)
Live, the band was a blend of misty-eyed nostalgia and over-the-top rock and roll that was always delivered with conviction. Imagine throwing Bob Dylan and The Clash together at the peak of their careers, and that's an apt enough description of what The Weakerthans live show was like. I last saw them at Bumbershoot in 2008. They were the only band I wanted to see that day, and I drove out from my lodgings in North Bend into the city, found parking, and paid for my $35 festival pass for the day just to watch The Weakerthans play for 45 minutes. I had just moved to Seattle from Kansas City two weeks prior in a bit of an unexpected blur, and my emotions were a giant tangled mess of cables that someone had set fire to. The excitement of a new city that I had hoped to move to for years was in a non-stop cage match with the nostalgia of my old hometown, of missing my old friends and old haunts. To be certain, it was an uncertain time. In a crowded auditorium, the opening plinky chords of "Left and Leaving" were plunked, and I fought tears in a room full of strangers. Hell, I'm listening to it while I write this and my eyes are welling up. It was a strange time in my life, and I had already had the moment captured in my mind years prior by this song. Melancholy, meet deja vu.
There truly are so many personal memories wrapped into these songs, and revisiting these records, it's clear to me that there is no other band that does what The Weakerthans did so well; for as much as the band's sentiment was rooted in nostalgia, it's even moreso rooted in the present moment, in observing the tiny details that we miss when we get in a hurry. It's about being swept over by emotion without becoming a big blubbering, screaming mess, retaining a keen eye for observation and a joy for life when those quiet, lonely moments of life creep up and crash down on us. It's a beautiful perspective that will be missed greatly. Thank you for the incredible work, Weakerthans. We'll miss you.
I recommend you watch this, live footage from the band's last release (Live from the Burton Cummings Theatre) and soak in the good stuff.