With “Winnipeg” tattooed across his heart, John K. Samson has a peculiar knack for observing the sarcastic tragedies and subtle beauty of the prairies while still creating a colloquial postcard out of them. However, compared to previous work with the Weakerthans and his earlier solo album, the subject matter of Winter Wheat has expanded beyond the woes within provincial borders and now delves into the broader issues of modern society.
Technology figures largely in the opening track “Select All Delete”, where Samson describes the new age anxiety that accompanies the use of social media and cell phones. He revisits this theme again in “The Oldest Oak at Brookside” (“Before the phones told us where to go”), at which point the album culminates with a sense of nostalgia for the time before modern technological progress.
”Vampire Alberta Blues” is a brilliant epithet of the oil industry and its complicated relationship with society. There is great upheaval to reduce and eliminate fuels from our lives, yet there still remains an immeasurable dependency: “The vampire Alberta lifts a nearly empty glass and pleads / ‘I need another one of these / So keep ‘em coming.’”
With his endearingly nasal voice, Samson croons lyrics that are intricate yet still convey a certain degree of intimacy, which he’s paired with simple rhythms and few instruments. The large-scale addiction which is addressed throughout the album is funnelled into “17th Street Treatment Centre.” In an intimate and light-hearted narrative on addiction, we hear the shining example of Samson’s ability to tackle heavy subjects with unassuming lyrics and modest yet beautiful melody.
Samson does not disappoint in capturing the essence of that Manitoba je-ne-sais-quoi, despite mentioning very little about the province itself. Rather, he has taken Winnipeg’s one-degree-of-separation phenomenon and successfully integrated it into his songwriting. He maintains the capacity to render his subject close and familiar, even if it is something as hefty and intimidating as Instagram or fossil fuels.
Winter Wheat is light, yet pensive, and its lyrics will leave listeners feeling like they have just spotted their own reflection against the crowd while passing the window-laden Hudson’s Bay storefront on Portage Ave.