John K. Samson, former Propagandhi bassist and leader of the bookish indie unit the Weakerthans, has always had a journeyman streak running through his songwriting. On each Weakerthans album, Samson has presented a wide variety of locations and portraits. We’ve been in hospital beds with his characters, in the wilderness of Antarctica, we’ve even watched a person completely fall apart emotionally from the perspective of a cat. In a word (and song title) borrowed from quite possibly his most well known Propagandhi song, he’s “anchorless.” Which makes Provincial, his first stab at a solo full length, that much more of an anomaly within his catalog.
The songs contained here, six of which are re-recorded versions of tunes from EPs released in 2009 and 2010, are rooted in the setting of Samson’s current home province of Manitoba, making for a travelogue of sorts. A promotional video for the album shows Samson in a variety of settings: on a solitary street corner, inside of a building’s vestibule, in a cabin off the side of a country road, and it’s that kind of specific detail that Samson brings to each of the songs here. It’s an album that brings a tight focus on real places and people, from the Ninette tuberculosis sanatorium to former NHL player Reggie Leach, and the Canadian roads that connect each of them.
Samson, as expected, is in top lyrical form, heavily updating Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” to address the concerns of a nerve-wracked academic on “When I Write My Master’s Thesis,” or assuming the voice of an online petition for the induction of the aforementioned Leach into the Hockey Hall Of Fame on the cumbersomely titled “www.ipetitions/petition/rivertonrifle/.” He conveys true loneliness and end-of-life desolation on “Letter In Icelandic From The Ninette San,” and delivers a crushing heart-blow on the “The Last And.”
If only the music was of a uniform quality with Samson’s lyrical performances. For the most part, this is the case. On the haunting “Grace General,” soft guitar feedback acts as ambient noise generated from the city Samson describes, and one can almost feel the brisk Canadian evening breeze. Opener “Highway 1 East” pairs Samson with a dignified horn section and not much else. “Heart of the Continent” starts out riding a simple folk rhythm before steadily ratcheting up its percussion content, settling into a loping groove by track’s end. It’s moments like these, where Samson slowly stretches out and away from his safety net, that unfortunately make otherwise high-quality songs like “Cruise Night” and the previously mentioned “Masters’ Thesis” seem like nothing much more than warmed-over Weakerthans instrumentals.
The beauty of Samson’s songcraft and lyricism has carried him this far in his career, and it definitely gets him through Provincial as well. Despite these unavoidable facts, it’s still a little bit of a bummer to only receive half of a new album, and even more so that it’s being released simultaneously with a large collection of Samson’s lyrics and poems spanning 1997-2012. Provincial is an immensely enjoyable album, to be sure, but the suspicion lingers that it could’ve been pushed into “career highlight” territory with just an extra little push.