January 24, 2012 - Epitaph
John K. Samson is—alongside John Darnielle (the Mountain Goats) and David Dondero—one of indie rock’s finest lyricists. He’s especially canny at chronicling the subtle advancing anomie and niggling emptiness at the center of modern life. His characters are often lost and resigned, drifting listlessly and taking on water. Provincial, his sophomore solo fiull-length (his debut, Slips And Tangles, came in ‘93 while he was still playing bass in Propagandhi), could easily be a release from his band, the Weakerthans. It features a mix of bustling rock and spare folk-pop sophistication that could almost pass for Adult AC (in the best way).
Mostly, Samson’s songs are populated by damaged souls seeking to negotiate an exit. This is particularly true of “Letter in Icelandic from The Ninette San,” a quiet acoustic tune that begins as an epistolary tale that turns dark as you slowly discover the truth of his environs. “It’s Halloween and skinny ghosts dressed like cowboys rest at the railing by my door on their way from the children’s ward,” he sings, as the character dictates the final arrangements for the disposition of his stuff.
The whole album is alive with such evocative description. Samson describes an advancing storm as “inky bruises punched into the sky by bolts of light” on the folky “Heart Of The Continent.” In “Longitudinal Centre,” he claims “spring made winter an insulting opening offer,” while a radio station is “metastasizing tumors of evangelists and ads for vinyl tuning” and “the city’s some cheap EQ with the mids pushed up” on “Highway 1 West.”
While short of a concept album, Provincial is very much about place and home, as the title suggests. It’s a loose theme running from “Cruise Night” where Samson recalls riding his 10-speed around the Dairy Queen, to “www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle/” which advocates hometown hockey hero Reggie Leach for the Hockey Hall of Fame under the tender lamplight of acoustic guitar, recalling how some “weren’t always fair to the native kid on borrowed skates.”
However it’s the two tracks involving computer games that hit hardest. The punchy, slashing power-pop of “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” finds the protagonist on the streets of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as the song opens. Sort of a nod to Bob Dylan’s “When I Write My Masterpiece,” it’s an ode to unrealized potential. His girl promises to return when he writes his master’s thesis, meanwhile, “the darkness reboots and the loneliness increases.” The other, equally arrested character emerges from a slew of computer analogies on “Stop Error.” He hears a repeated theme from Call Of Duty 4, prompting him to “tap-tap off the volume and stare out at the road/Cars and snow plows scroll by, broken line of code from some embedded program that executes our town.”
Samson is such a splendid writer you can forgive the dour cast of his characters, and their flailing, failing lives. Provincial is more sedate and acoustic-based than a typical Weakerthans release, but not far removed thematically. While it is a very pretty album, its low-key music and downbeat lyrical tone make it a tad ponderous from start to finish. A couple more uptempo tracks would’ve helped. It’s a sharp effort taken in pieces, but as a whole, it’s a little lacking.