Amplified: The Weakerthans - By Volume

What is this life, why do we strive? Fast on a wheel, too fast to feel. One day, my love, this life will slow. Sam Brookes - One Day
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Amplified: The Weakerthans

John K. Samson is one of the most incisive lyricists of our generation. Author: on September 3, 2012
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I wonder if John K. Samson is capable of saying “I love you” in a song, but I think the point is that, if he did, the clocks would stop running and so, probably, would my heart. A song like “Relative Surplus Value” bristles with the details of desperate people’s lives, but it doesn’t throw itself head-first at words dressed up as feeling. What the Weakerthans have consistently and phenomenally managed to extract is the hidden meaning in every leaking tap and fire door that got left open, the lingering flutter of presumed-dead sentiment and the stupid little things that convince us we’ve found it again. These things exist, but few people write about them as we know them; in the absence of a declared theme, most lyricists lose both their perspective and their bite. But Samson has such an acute sense of people’s intricacies that he shoots depth and emotional complexity through every description, and so the scene becomes a snapshot, taken out of context but for the one created in its own detail.

And so when his real-world resolve breaks like it does at the end of “Relative Surplus Value”, it means more than any other writer’s show of invulnerability ever could. His words are always shivering with second glances, but the moment in which those thoughts move from tacit to acknowledged is breathtaking. It’s unerringly human, as he works his way round to an invitation: “I know we haven’t talked in a while, but, could you come get me?” That pause after “but” is absolutely crushing, a split-second in which you can practically hear the narrator’s self-doubt and insecurities rise and then crumble under the weight of emotional necessity. And right there you have a new favourite Weakerthans song, to add to all the others.

Within all this, the most important Weakerthans song is the one in which Samson removes himself from the human plane to sing about loneliness from afar, Virtute the cat’s departure rendered all the more devastating by the odd perspective and its implicit distance. That story’s end, and the loss of the sound, say just as much about the relationships between people. It’s the same kind of Samson-lilted incision, unraveling mindsets and regrets, but the beauty of the songwriting is amplified in the oddly-hued spotlight it places on human emotion. And it allows us to place Samson in the upper echelons of songwriting talent, eliciting reactions and statements without a road map to make it there.

And so a cursory racking of my brain reveals the one time that John K. Samson has used the words “I love you” in that order, and it’s not even the Weakerthans’ declaration. Nor is it that bold announcement that people turn to; instead, Maryland Bridge (from 1993’s Slips And Tangles) is self-aware as it finds “twelve clever ways to say I love you”, a line which would form the crux of a poet and a band’s career. From that song right the way through to “Utilities”, which closes Reunion Tour, and a list of fragile metaphors and imagery, Samson has become the master of finding different ways to say the things that he feels. In not being their own conclusions, his mythologies are all the more decisive. So he might not be able to say “I love you” in a song, but he can sure as hell find twelve clever ways to show it.

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