In the early to mid-'90s, singer-guitarist John Samson led the strident pop-punk act Propagandhi, penning songs with such politicized titles as "Apparently I'm a P.C. Fascist (Because I Care About Both Human and Non-Human Animals)" and "I Was a Pre-Teen McCarthyist."
Although the songs were short on subtlety, they left no doubt that they were products of an active intellect. But over time, Propagandhi's in-your-face militantism wore on Samson, and he left the band in '97.
"For years I was playing mostly for teenage boys who were there to push each other around, and I realized then that's just not what I wanted to do," Samson says. "That was a big turning point for me."
He had intended to go it alone, but couldn't break the band habit. So he solidified a lineup for the Weakerthans.
The musical approach is more sophisticated and pop-oriented than Propagandhi's. Samson's ideas haven't changed as much as how he chooses to express them. He even argues that his songwriting isn't dramatically different. "I still don't know how to write a chorus," he jokes.
He's still prone to making long lists -- the title track from 2000's Left and Leaving catalogs the remains of a failed romance ("This pain in my chest/The best parts of lonely/Duct-tape and soldered wires/New words for old desires") -- and litanies ("Let the golden oldies station crackle and come through/With a final benediction we'll hum along to," goes "Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call"). But getting older has meant noting the intricacies and nuances in the chiaroscuro between black and white.
"I think for me things have become less clear rather than more clear, as I've become older," Samson says.
While still possessed of the same scathing perspective, Samson has concentrated on producing carefully rendered set pieces and characters. It's been an evolving process that reaches its apex on the Weakerthans' most recent disc, 2003's Reconstruction Site.
"I was trying a new strategy, trying to still write in the first person -- or from the perspective of one person -- but trying to push the boundaries of that and make it not about me, because I'm not that interesting, really," says Samson. "I was so bored with trying to say the same things over and over again. Now I'm trying to say the same things over and over again, but in the voices of other people."
It's a panorama that runs from the cheeky postmodernism of "Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)" to the jangly "New Name for Everything," a second-person catalog of everyday alienation (". . . when the threads of your fears are unfurled with the tiniest pull"). "Plea From a Cat Called Virtue" finds the singer being castigated by his own pet: "Those bitter songs you sing, they're not helping anything. They won't make you strong."
Throughout Reconstruction Site, there's an ongoing theme of positive prescription over ill-humored armchair diagnosis. The aforementioned cat suggests throwing a party, where "we can pass around the easy lie of absolutely no regrets." On the title track, Samson idly longs for a machine "that runs on lies and gasoline" to "disassemble my despair/It never took me anywhere/It never bought me a drink." "Benediction" is forgiving, arguing that "our intentions were intangible and sweet, sick with simple math and shy discoveries."
"I wanted to do less complaining," Samson explains. "I've always wanted to write less you-done-me-wrong songs. It's a struggle because that's kind of the natural neutral gear for pop songwriting."
He admits that he's somewhat embarrassed about the long wait for a follow-up album. "Writing's just taken a while. I'm not sure why," he says. "What we are writing I really am enjoying and I'm excited about."
Luckily, Samson likes to road-test new material, so we'll hear a few new tracks from the forthcoming album. "The word I've been thinking about for this record is 'agency.' It's a nice political word, but it's also the idea of having the agency to actually accomplish or change something," he says.