A runaway cat. A lovelorn bus driver. A child admiring his hockey hero. A patient with rare medical conditions. These are characters singer-songwriter John K. Sampson, central figure in Canadian indie-rock band the Weakerthans, embodies on Reunion Tour. Sampson’s penmanship here is the most minute and observant among a recent batch of great songwriting (see Ferraby Lionheart, Will Sheff). Sampson can get an entire verse out of a beer-addled bar patron fumbling to peel the label off his bottle. It’s as if Sampson has a microscope through which he sees exquisitely into the human psyche.
A rock musician writing what basically amount to short stories nowadays is of course going to garner comparisons to Sufjan Stevens. Sampson doesn’t have an MFA in creative writing, but his narratives are just as gripping as Stevens’. (As is the story of Sampson’s own musical evolution: After starting out as the bassist for noisemakers Propaghandi, he formed the Weakerthans to explore his more poetic leanings.) Even some music on Reunion recalls Stevens. The simple, gorgeous “Bigfoot!” features the type of somber horn sounds that helped make Stevens’ Michigan such a revelation.
Mostly, the Weakerthans keep the songs in a rocking, mid-tempo groove reminiscent of good (read: older) Rilo Kiley as Sampson spins his well-worded yarns. A cat named Virtute becomes a recurring character here after an initial appearance on the last Weakerthans album, 2003’s Reconstruction Site. This time the feline’s tune is much slower and sadder, as Virtute tells her owner why she left and things she missed, like, “How I’d knead into your chest while you were sleeping/ Your shallow breathing made me purr.”
Depicting a cat’s inner thoughts requires imagination; depicting a person’s requires pathos. Sampson has that in spades. “Sun in an Empty Room” and first single “Night Windows,” which appear back to back, bring to mind Edward Hopper-esque imagery not only with their titles, but with their lyrics as well. Both come from the point of view of men who’ve lost love but don’t know exactly how it got away. That bus driver on opener “Civil Twilight” says he can’t stop finding an ex’s face in those of his passengers. To take his mind off that, he makes up games: “I recite the names of provinces or Hollywood actors/ Oh, Ontario, oh, Jennifer Jason Leigh.”
All of this remorse doesn’t dissolve into pure treacle, though. That’s because Sampson also has a sharp sense of humor, throwing in comic relief like, “I’ve got more faults than the state of California,” and, “My heart pumping pure mini-bar.” If today’s great indie songwriters were a graduating high school class, Sampson would definitely get voted best all around.