One of the wonders of the Way We Listen Now is that you can invent total canons and musical legends in your head that don’t line up with actual music history. There was a time when we agreed on all the genre-kings and game changers because a small media elite came to a consensus. Now we’re all the media, and we can tell our own story.
The Weakerthans are, in my own head canon, one of the best bands of the early 00s. The Canadian indie rockers were beloved by many, but they never seemed to be on the forefront of the scene. At best they got a cozy soundtrack spot during a prime Vince Vaughn flick, “Wedding Crashers,” which saw “Aside” play during the credits. But in my head, they were one of the pillars of the genre, deserving of the same acclaim, popularity and coverage as the Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, the Shins, and everyone else that helped us figure out what indie rock was.
If you think that’s crazy, you’re probably right. That’s the best thing about these alternate history timelines we make for ourselves.
There was a time when I just assumed The Weakerthan’s song, “Watermark,” was a cultural touchstone for all of us. One of those songs we’d heard so many times that we’d gotten used to it and maybe even bored of it. It’s not. It barely qualifies on their Spotify top 10 or their Last.FM 6 month chart. If there ever was an iconic, radio-friendly, all-cylinders Weakerthans song, that would’ve been it.
But the Weakerthans are no more. Last week’s announcement was probably the first time most people even thought about the band in years. Their last original LP was in 2007, and the last we heard from them was a 2010 live music album — the death rattle of a veteran band. Maybe they could’ve burst out of the blue for a revival album and make a medium-sized splash. But that’s a lot to pull off, and in retrospect, we should’ve already seen they were gone.
It’s a lodestar that helps us find the entire spectrum of indie rock by how far, and in what ways, it deviates from this point.
Here’s my compact, music-journo-as-hell summary of The Weakerthans sound for those coming lately: Indie rock that invests mostly into storytelling and turns of phrases with a pop rock bent and a lot of heart. How many bands does that describe? It’s the middle indie road, but whatever band you pictured in that illustration fulfills an important guiding light role. It’s a lodestar that helps us find the entire spectrum of indie rock by how far, and in what ways, it deviates from this point.
Maybe for you that’s Jimmy Eat World, or Pavement, or the Pixies, or Superchunk or Weezer. But, man, let me tell you about The Weakerthans.
John K. Samson is their head, heart and body, one of the sharpest songwriters I’ve ever heard. His words are great. They reveal, hit hard, delight, damage and get stuck. He makes songs that are translate to text, like highlight reels:
- “Somewhere love and justice shine. Cynicism falls asleep. Tyranny talks to itself. Sappy slogans all come true. We forget to feed our fear.”
- “Rely a bit too heavily on alcohol and irony / get clobbered on by courtesy / In love with love and lousy poetry”
- “The full moon makes our faces shine like over-ironed polyester / then disappears behind the clouds, leaves me under empty rows / of night windows.”
They were one of the best “words bands” and sometimes that’s just an effect of the song structure. Sometimes lines tumble out beautifully because of the momentum of the melody and pacing before it. “Diagnosis” from their 1999 debut Fallow has wonderful gear shifts from verse to chorus to post-chorus, and it’s the result of great teamwork from every band member. The second verse, beginning “I have a story,” is an uphill jog of starts and stops. It pays off, with relief, on the chorus of longer strums and the titular kicker: “a diagnosis of a foreign frame of heart.” Then the post-chorus debuts immediately after with double-timed drums that cash in on more relief. That’s a distillation of what pop should sound like, at least in the band-guitar format: movement, ease and relief. Smooth sailing.
Virtute, John K. Samson’s cat, is well known to fans for its appearance in two of their most popular songs: “A Plea from a Cat Named Virtute” on Reconstruction Site and its follow-up, “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure” on Reunion Tour. Now, anyone singing about their cat has the potential for corniness. It’s a high stakes low reward challenge to write from the perspective of a pet, but Samson uses it to speak from a positive, motivational voice. A voice that says “those bitter songs you sing aren’t helping anything,” that screams “I know you’re strong.” It’s a device that allows Samson to try and pick himself up out of the gutter of depression, which is a Herculean feat, and somehow his darkness compelled him to try it. Years later Virtute escapes into the night, but it’s not clear if this is the peace of mission accomplish or the defeat of mission failure. Just as well.
The Essential Weakerthans
Listen to these, bums: