With his usual band, The Weakerthans, on hiatus since 2014 (and their latest record being released in 2007), Winnipeg-born singer-songwriter John K. Samson’s solo career has been steadily filling the indie-folk gaps that fans of his band would expect, albeit with the rock aspects toned down. Winter Wheat’s quirky lyrics, which teeter between winking and earnest, counter a distinctively cold-feeling, providing an interesting contrast to Samson’s main influence on the album: fellow Winnipegger Neil Young’s carefree On The Beach (1974). Song names in Winter Wheat tip their hat to Young’s work, while Samson’s weary optimism emanates throughout. As John K. Samson sings in the titular track, “We know the world is good enough, because it has to be…”
In the same way that Young or Springsteen speak for and to blue-collar workers, much of Winter Wheat relates to white-collar workers, and the young people about to enter that world (remembering that Samson is a creative writing teacher by day). Early tracks like “Select All Delete” and “Postdoc Blues” sing about botched Powerpoint presentations and hostile hashtags in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way that would seem inscrutable to listeners outside the melancholic intellectuals Samson seems to speak for. As the album progresses, however, lyrical themes balance themselves and branch into fascinating and sometimes bizarre topics, such as “Quiz Night At Looky Lou’s”, a bleak monologue from a mentally ill telepath and his search for someone who might understand him. Samson’s characters range from exhausted Winnipeggers to unreadable oddballs, giving each track and unique and constantly refreshing perspective that continually reveals more of Samson’s personality, always blended somewhere behind the tone.
Thankfully, the album’s sound changes enough to complement its cast of voices. Each track is stripped down to contain just a handful of elements—unornamented by anything that doesn’t feel vital to the song’s tone—that dance around Samson’s guitar playing, which never stylistically repeats itself across each of the 15 tracks. Think less about Neil Young, and more about a mixture of Jonathan Coulton’s mind and Dan Mangan’s mood. Darker, colder themes of insecurity and self-doubt are there, but they feel like Winnipeg winds snapping on the outside of Samson’s self-styled cabin.
Winter Wheat is smart indie-folk that, despite paying tribute to Neil Young by name, never tries to be anything besides John K. Samson’s peculiar vision. For those who fall within Samson’s target audience of sensitive thinkers, that vision can be funny, thoughtful, and heartbreaking—often all at the same time. For any listeners, Winter Wheat’s disarming Canadian charm is enough to warrant a listen.
review by Matthew Wardell