When news broke late in the summer that John K. Samson was releasing a new album, I was elated. It had been nearly five years since his solo debut, Provincial, and that album had left quite an impact on me. In the intervening years I became a massive fan, acquiring The Weakerthans’ discography and poring over the evocative and sincere writing found in Samson’s Lyrics and Poems 1997-2012. I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to live in the same province as an artist of this calibre, and often wondered why Samson’s body of work seems to go underappreciated in the Canadian music scene (if not by fans).
In any case, Winter Wheat finds Samson transitioning into a new stage of his career, one less rushed than the write-record-tour cycle of years past. He’s free to work on his own schedule now, and, working alongside his spouse and musical collaborator Christine Fellows, Samson seems to have taken his time constructing this album, even taking jobs as a writer-in-residence at the University of Manitoba, the University of British Columbia, and, currently, Winnipeg’s Millennium Library. He’s also a pivotal figure at ARP Books, a Winnipeg-based publishing company.
This transition from gigging musician to local multidisciplinary arts supporter means more artistic fulfillment for Samson, though a longer wait between albums for fans. And you know what? That’s okay. If studying Jeff Tweedy’s later career has taught me anything, it’s that, in the long run, both fan and artist are better off when the artist overcomes the grind of the music industry and replaces it with a more sustainable work-life balance.
Samson alludes to these conscious lifestyle changes early on in the album: “I don’t mean to miss the good old days / The good old days were mostly bad / But I remember how dark the night got then / how absences could make me glad.” It’s the gaps, the “absences,” that can give a moment its meaning. In a world filled with auto-refreshing social media timelines, we don’t often allow ourselves to experience an absence, and thus, we don’t really experience the moments that punctuate them either.
Samson is at his best when he is gently skewering our most lamentable tendencies, writ large by our hasty adoption of all that is new. In “Oldest Oak at Brookside,” he invites us to view time from the perspective of the oldest tree in Winnipeg’s oldest cemetery — planted long before “we built that smirking airport” nearby.
Compared to Provincial, Winter Wheat is, at least musically, a more subdued affair. But throughout, Samson explores familiar themes like place, the prairies, and politics, all of which are shot through with his unique and poignant blend of tenderness, melancholy, and wry humour. And while Winter Wheat does quite reach its predecessor’s heights, some of its songs rank among the best work he has ever done. Lead single “Postdoc Blues” is a case in point. Anyone who has ever delivered a presentation at the front of a classroom will instantly identify with its beleaguered protagonist: piloting her rental car through stretches of lonely northern Ontario highway, she wonders if it’s all worth it, and holds out a fragile hope that she’ll “get it right tomorrow night.”
But it’s the title track that tug at my chest the most. The song was written for Manitoban novelist Miriam Toews. Over the same strumming pattern he’s used to great effect before, on songs like “One Great City,” Samson explores the metaphorical richness of winter wheat: a crop that is planted in the fall, sprouts, then goes dormant over winter, rising again in spring. Fellows’ lilting harmonies enter halfway through, joining Samson as he quotes a line from the final chapter Toews’ celebrated novel, A Complicated Kindness: “We know this world is good enough because it has to be.” As it happens, I live in Toews’ hometown of Steinbach, and just finished reading her book just a couple of weeks before Winter Wheat was released, so perhaps that explains why this song hits me so hard every time I toss this album onto the turntable.
Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to catch one of the few concerts Samson is playing in support of Winter Wheat. It was deeply satisfying to watch him perform these songs for the first time to a sold-out hometown crowd (Fellows opened the show with a set of her own striking material). He was all smiles in between songs, which was great to see, coming as this album does after a time of struggle with depression and anxiety.
As the album winds to a close, it occurs to me that the word “heartfelt” is thrown around far too lightly these days. But this is, in the oldest and most robust sense of the word, a heartfelt album. It is a work of deep humanity that meets you where you’re at, then shows your those familiar surroundings in a new light. It is, very simply, another affecting album from one of Canada’s quietly great songwriters.