Manitoba is a huge province in the centre of Canada. It has harsh winters, fabulous summers, and breathtaking scenery. Above all it’s big.
John K Samson, frontman and writer behind the Weakerthans’ engaging blend of folk and indie pop, has spent the last couple of years researching and releasing songs about travels in his home province. These songs are collected and added to for this first solo LP Provincial. It also contains a re-recording of a duet with his wife Christine Fellows which formed part of a home recording in 2007 called The Old House, a couple of tracks of which were released to Canadian radio.
The result is a lyrically dense, mainly acoustic or lightly arranged meditation on small isolated community life in Manitoba that offers a human-scale approach to the loneliness of the universe. It’s more than a travelogue – more a meditation with some great tunes and a sometimes delicate soundscape. The sound is more acoustic than The Weakerthans, augmented by spare string and wind orchestrations. The words are bleak but the tunes are hopeful.
Take the upbeat ‘When I Write my Master’s Thesis’: it rocks along, but it’s about the despair of a research student researching a forgotten sanatorium in Ninette (a small town in rural Manitoba), his research unleashing “emaciated ghosts hiding in those curtains creases/I’ll let you haunt the world when I write my master’s thesis”. But it’s the student who’s trapped, and looks forward to a hard drive smashed to pieces, and freedom. This song links to the despairing death-focussed view of a resident of the same sanitorium in ‘Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San’ which begins with a reference to lonely, betrayed, defiant Icelandic saga hero Grettir who gripped his sword so hard while defending himself his hands had to be chopped off – and that’s what its like to the patient in the bed with x-ray burns on his back for whom the world is the lonely fear of a last stand against illness. He decides he’d let go the sword.
‘Highway 1 East’ is a kind of overture to the whole album in mood, subject and sound – the narrator separated and alone where “some sarcastic satellite/Says I’m not anywhere”. Bittersweet and lost, it sets the tone for the record, Samson’s voice sounding genial in comparison to the wry tone of the lyrics.
‘Heart of a Continent’ is perhaps the heart of the album – a terrified picture of Winnipeg where “…ghosts fill discount parkas, sleeping bags/Peer at me from the crumpled dark”. Darkness, and unknown things in the darkness, are a theme. ‘Grace General’ is a bleak approach to an institution with a scary world beyond the sliding doors – “What will I do now? What will I do now?” those beyond the doors cry.
‘Cruise Night’ is a simple celebration of needing to drive and take your brother’s car – your bike won’t do – and just drive aimlessly around, perfectly capturing small-town youth with not a lot to get excited about.
Aloneness on the record isn’t just physical, it also shows itself in technology in ‘The Last And’ and ‘Stop Error’; the latter juxtaposing technological failure and isolation with a tune from a Bach chorale from the St Matthew’s Passion and the former a bleak – that word again – view of a workplace romance (shyly danced around and ultimately failing).
‘Longtitudinal Centre’ again refers to geographical loneliness at the passing of a long winter in the middle of a huge country (“How the wind strums on those signs that say/The Atlantic and Pacific are very far away”).
Small-town concerns are captured in an actual petition set to music for a hockey player (Reggie Leach, ‘The Rifle’ of Riverton) to enter the NHL Hall of Fame. The final lost scene of ‘Highway 1 West’ – the feeling of lostness described as an encroaching cancer – only leaves an updated piano-accompanied duet with his wife in ‘Taps Reversed’ to round things off – “Unpaid bills wrestling interest rates”. Life in the province of Manitoba is tough, but people shine through.
Overall this is an interesting and worthwhile adjunct to Samson’s work with the Weakerthans. Lyrically it’s got a kind of existentialist view of the individual alone in the universe, but one with lovely, complex tunes, an engaging singing voice and a kind of hope in humanity that shines through. It’s an album that creeps up on you and gets inside your mood, becoming quietly uplifting, like an evasive cat that enters your life gradually and then takes over.