Home Read Classic Album Review: The Weakerthans | Reconstruction Site

Classic Album Review: The Weakerthans | Reconstruction Site

The Winnipeg pop-punks’ Epitaph debut is also their most inspired work to date.


This came out in 2003 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):


Elizabethan sonnets? Backwards tape effects? Brass fanfares? French philosophy? Thematic arcs? Literary allusions? Penguins? This is punk rock?

Well, in a word, no. It’s The Weakerthans. And anybody who’s been paying attention to hometown singer-guitarist John K. Samson and his bandmates until now knows that while they are many things — including a punk band — they have always been more than a pack of brawny, beer-swilling bruisers.

Just how much more, though, is made stunningly, decisively and fully obvious on the band’s third full-length Reconstruction Site. It’s their first release for the influential and respected indie label Epitaph. In a nice bit of synchronicity, it’s also their most inspired, creative, coherent, adventurous, engrossing and fully realized work. A disc that clearly establishes the reed-thin, reedy-voiced Samson as the most gifted and artful songwriter this city has produced in a generation. And a disc that finds the other talented members of The Weakerthans — guitarist and keyboard player Stephen Carroll, bassist John P. Sutton and drummer-percussionist Jason Tait — matching him stride for stride with their bold and expressive musical contributions.

Ultimately, though, the Ian Blurton-produced Reconstruction Site is also an album that is guaranteed to challenge — and perhaps even alienate — the fair-weather portion of The Weakerthans’ core audience. A concept album about dealing with grief, loss, regret and failure, this 14-track song cycle is anything but a teenage beer-drinking party disc. Rather, it’s the sort of albm you listen to through headphones, late at night with the lights extinguished. Like the complex and difficult worlds they illuminate, Samson’s songs and the band’s treatments are rich in detail and craftsmanship, with plenty of unsettling textures, daring experiments and recurring lyrical and melodic imagery.

Opener Manifest brings us the disc’s enigmatic and surreal mission statement — “I want to call requests through heating vents, and hear them answered with a whisper, ‘No’ ” — delivered in iambic pentameter, urged along by a martial rhythm and punctuated with a trumpet fanfare worthy of a Broadway overture. Pay attention and you’ll notice Manifest’s Shakespearean-sonnet construction and graceful melody line return in the album’s creepy, reverse-echo centrepiece Hospital Vespers and the mournful closer Past-Due, creating a thematic birth-to-death arc for the album.

Between those milestones, Samson offers up tale after tale with lyrics as rich as poetry and narratives as cleverly compact as good short stories. The darkly lazy Psalm For The Elks Lodge Last Call visits an old boys’ club that is both comforting and pathetic. The gently flowing Time’s Arrow voices a desire to turn back the clock, expressed in lyrics like “You whisper your arrival walking backwards to the door.” The churning rocker Uncorrected Proofs and the loping country twanger A New Name for Everything find their protagonists rewriting and rebuilding their lives from broken pieces. And the fuzzy slogger The Prescience of Dawn, with its searing guitar cyclones and lyrics like “The sirens woke me up again / I know they’re coming for me someday, just a matter of when,” is an unsettling tale of fetal-position paranoia and grief that boils down to four simple words: “You should have known.”

Thankfully, Samson knows enough to balance all this heaviness with some of the most light-hearted songs he’s written. The churning and poppy Plea From A Cat Named Virtute presents a charming cat’s-eye-view of human depression (“Why don’t you ever want to play?”). First single Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961) is a jaunty, rolllicking little tale of senility and hallucination. And the folksy One Great City!, Samson’s jaundiced view of Winnipeg boosterism and low civic self-esteem, boasts an ironically addictive refrain — “I hate Winnipeg” — that is either the best chorus of the year or the worst, depending on whether you know what Samson is really talking about.

But here’s one thing I know for sure: With Reconstruction Site, Samson and The Weakerthans have put together what will undoubtedly go down as the finest local album of the year.


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