Winter Wheat is John K. Samson’s follow up to his 2012 album Provincial. Named after a strain of wheat planted in the autumn, dormant in the winter and rising in the spring, fans of Samson and The Weakerthans will find a treasure trove of familiar themes explored lyrically, including love, loss and Virtute the cat.
The first two tracks of the album set the tone for what is to follow. ‘Select All Delete’, the album’s opener, shimmers into life and is Samson at his melancholic best. A sparse arrangement, the bass thrums lazily, brushed drums keep rhythm and strings hover quietly behind the refrain from which the song takes its name, delivered in Samson’s yearning, understated vocal. ‘Postdoc Blues’, though still lyrically brooding, is a different prospect. There is a more folksy, bluesy feel to the song, and both the drums and the vocal are more insistent as Samson asserts, ‘Don’t despair, you’ll get it right, tomorrow night…’
In this more upbeat vein, tracks 5 and 10, ‘Oldest Oak at Brookside’ and ‘Fellow Traveller’, are particular highlights. Pianos and layered vocals complement the driving rhythm section as Samson pays tribute to the oldest tree in Brookside Cemetery (the largest in Western Canada apparently), standing tall ‘Long before we found a way to gauge the coldest day’ whilst Fellow Traveller is a slice of foot tapping indie pop which loosely retells the fate of British Soviet spy Anthony Blunt.
‘Winter Wheat’ and ‘Alpha Adept’ are two stand out tracks of a more pensive nature, with the latter perhaps my own personal favourite track on the album. This track really showcases what is beautiful about this record to an old romantic like me: the comforting warmth of the bass, the aching pine of the guitars and the simultaneous hopefulness and hopelessness of Samson’s lyrics – ‘All I can say is I’m excited/ All I can do is let you know/ You are the one I wanna be with/ When they return to claim the Earth.’
Despite suffering a mid-record dip for me personally (‘17th Street Treatment Centre’ and ‘Vampire Alberta Blues’), there is a lot to love about Winter Wheat, particularly for long-standing fans of Samson. The album ends as it begins, with a sparse, restrained offering in which the famed (at least to fans of The Weakerthans) cat Virtute lives on in the memory of his companion. The final words of the record, ‘Let it rest, all you can’t change/ Let it rest and be done.’