John K. Samson
January 24, 2012
John K. Samson is a man obsessed with the minutiae of everyday life in small-town Manitoba. His debut solo record, comprised of tracks from his previous EPs as well as new songs, paints a beautifully detailed portrait of life in Western Canada, and specifically, Winnipeg.
To anyone familiar with Samson’s work in his critically acclaimed and revered indie band, The Weakerthans, much of the album’s musical and lyrical content won’t come as a surprise. If anything, Provincial follows Samson’s trend of moving farther away from the punk influences of The Weakerthans’ earlier material and into full-on alt country and indie Can-Rock territory. There’s songs about snowplows, legendary hockey players, lonely master’s students, and the feeling of being stuck in a town you hate. As with all of Samson’s writing, Provincial captures otherwise ephemeral moments and feelings in surprising ways. His affecting lyrics take the listener on a journey of loss, isolation, love, and hope through the snowy landscape of the province he calls home.
The lyrics on Provincial have a way of taking you by surprise. One does not necessarily expect to be deeply moved by a song that begins by referencing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, as “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” does. Samson never fails to tease the grand out of the insignificant, however, as the song unfolds into a tale of loneliness and hope, as the isolated master’s student proclaims that, “It’s all going to change when I write my master’s thesis.” Besides wielding metaphysical conceits like a seasoned veteran, Samson’s songwriting prowess is displayed when even a sentence comprised of just eight words can invoke a myriad of emotions. When he sings in that wonderfully nasal voice, “Too far to walk to anywhere from here,” on “Highway 1 West,” every feeling of isolation, boredom, and resignation that comes with small town life crashes down upon the listener. Every line Samson utters on Provincial has uncommon weight behind it.
Provincial is as much a journey through time and space as it is an exploration of intensely personal emotions. Songs like “Letters In Icelandic from the Ninette San” and “www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle” (that’s right, he named a song after an online petition to induct Reggie “The Riverton Rifle” Leach into the Hockey Hall of Fame) convey uncanny immediacy as they describe life in Manitoba landmarks with detail and empathy for the characters. Even if the events in the song are set many years ago, vivid and heart-wrenching lines like, “I’ll practice my English on nurses, ‘Oh, that’s a nice name.’ And they may ask for mine but the burns on my back from the X-rays say I shouldn’t show anyone anything ever again,” allow the listener to experience the emotions expressed in the song in a very personal and immediate way.
Provincial‘s lilting country ballads and lively rockers alike expertly convey the feelings of isolation, hope, and historical continuity that Samson intends to get across. After four albums with The Weakerthans, two solo EPs, and now Provincial, I don’t believe it would be a stretch to call Samson a national treasure and truly one of the greatest living songwriters in Canada. Provincial is an experience to savor for old fans and first time listeners alike.