In the music reviewing game, the viewing of certain albums as ‘critic-bait’ is one that can’t really be ignored anymore. It’s a term that denotes an album that’s received plenty of buzz either on a mainstream level or in the indie scene, but when they drop, the critical praise that comes gushing their way is enormous, even in the album in question has gaping flaws that are difficult to mask (see Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo). In many ways, John K Samson’s newest full-length Winter Wheat could easily fall into this category – it’s his first album since the 2015 dissolution of his former band The Weakerthans (a band that also found massive critical favour in their day), and listening to it, it’s the kind of record that certain publications absolutely love – folk-tinged patter with the oblique lyricism and delivery of an American Football-esque emo act.
And just like so many of those ‘critic-bait’ albums, Winter Wheat has gaping holes in it that are most likely to be glossed over by the majority of the mainstream critical circuit, but ones that can’t be ignored by any stretch. And one of the major ones is Samson himself on vocals; he’s nasal and obnoxious compared to the smooth, equaled patter of most singer-songwriters, and when he’s without a more fleshed-out instrumental section, what’s supposedly meant to be bare and emotional comes across as grating. And while that’s nothing really new when compared to frontmen like AJJ’s Sean Bonnette or The Front Bottoms’ Brian Sella, Samson lacks their knowing wink in terms of humour, and he frequently feels more aloof than he needs to. And when some of these tracks are played so straight, there’s a lack of warmth that comes with such an endearing awkwardness, the worst example being in Quiz Night At Looky Lou’s, a largely spoken word piece where the narrator claims to be a telepath and travels around the country to hold quiz nights in bars in order to find more like him. It feels like it should be a tongue-in-cheek sketch of sorts, but Samson’s delivery is so deadpan and stony that you’re inclined to take it completely seriously.
That being said, where Winter Wheat is most successful is in its lyrical framing; for as questionable as some of Samson’s lyrical choices can be, the fact that this album is written as a series of vignettes surrounding different characters at least lends a unique humanity to each offering. The large underlying sentiment is pretty watertight too, exploring the self and the idea of human individuality; 17th Street Treatment Centre sees its main character finding happiness in a rehab centre with his positive outlook; Postdoc Blues follows a postdoctoral student giving presentations around Ontario and finding himself questioning how much he’s really committed to what he does; they’re interesting fragments of stories, the fragmentation of which can be seen as representing the characters themselves and their own grip on reality.
It at least makes up for the instrumentation, which could be argued has the same effect, but at time it feels less interesting and more difficult for the sake of being difficult. That’s not referencing the more plaintive folk tracks on this album like Select All Delete or Requests (which could really serve for something to give them a bit more unique flair), or even the rattling guitar snarl of Vampire Alberta Blues, probably the best song on this album. No, instead Winter Wheat can be found indulging in its own hipster-enticing tendencies with skewed, formless instrumental passages, provided you can even call them that (see the miasmic, ambient noise that’s the sole backdrop of Quiz Night At Looky Lou’s). The weedy guitar and haphazard, empty percussion on Carrie Ends The Call sounds unfinished, while the lumbering drumbeat of Alpha Adept drags the entire song down, even if the wheezing, fluttering keys do soften the blow. It’s an album that can’t make efficient use of all the ideas it has, and thus can’t assemble a coherent through-line.
And while it’s arguable that, given the confused, scatterbrained narrative, that might be the point, it still has a detrimental effect on Winter Wheat on the whole. It’s not a terrible album, and John K Samson remains inspired as a songwriter if not necessarily a singer, but there’s just not enough here that runs in tandem to properly work. It might be the constant clustering of ideas or the fact that, at fifteen tracks, this album runs long, but Winter Wheat struggles to connect beyond its first three or four tracks, and ends up feeling unfortunately like background noise. It’s not an album you can really hate, but overall ambivalence is hardly a fitting replacement.
For fans of: The Weakerthans, Greg MacPherson, The Mountain Goats
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Winter Wheat’ by John K Samson is released on 21st October on ANTI- Records.