"We are curling missionaries," Weakerthans singer/guitarist John K. Samson writes. "I am sure it will soon be bigger than NASCAR." The fourth song on his band's new album, Reunion Tour, takes its title from the Tournament of Hearts, the same Canadian women's curling championship that provided a name for the Constantines' 2005 album, Tournament of Hearts. Throw in the fact that Samson appears on the debut from the Constantines-affiliated Baby Eagle project, and visions of a massive pro-curling congress among one's favorite Canadian rock bands begin to arise.
The title Reunion Tour, Samson writes, is "partly a joke, pointing to the fact it took a while to make. I think the real writing began in 2004, when I went and saw a retrospective of Edward Hopper paintings in London." He adds, "I came out of it thinking I would write 12 songs about Hopper paintings. I got two done—'Night Windows' and 'Sun in an Empty Room,' and the record kind of grew from there." Samson also cites his musical appearances outside the Weakerthans as contributing to his songwriting process. "I enjoyed watching other people's writing processes, and have been inspired by them."
Less directly connected to his songwriting is Samson's involvement with Winnipeg-based independent press Arbeiter Ring Publishing, although aesthetically, Samson does comment that independent music or publishing, "seems like the right way to do things. Anything else seems a bit alien to me."
In the four years since the band's Reconstruction Site, Greg Smith has replaced John P. Sutton on bass, yet the group's core sound remains the same: Samson's restrained vocals and densely constructed lyrics atop music that ranges from anthems to sparse, terse elegies. Jason Tait's drumming is steady and anchors the group's tonal shifts, while Stephen Carroll's guitar is equally suited to fist-pumpers and stark mood pieces. Samson's lyrics here are as wide ranging as they've ever been.
"Relative Surplus Value" finds him inhabiting the life of a harried businessman arriving at an airport early, "my heart pumping pure mini-bar," and in less than three minutes, it moves from a sketch of a desperate life to a spot-on extended metaphor to a harrowing moment of humility. Samson draws inspiration from characters both fictitious and real. (When asked whether he seeks out inspiration or vice versa, Samson responds, "I guess they generally find me, somehow.") "Elegy for Gump Worsley" covers the life and career of a veteran hockey goaltender, while "Hymn of the Medical Oddity" draws inspiration from the mistakenly gender-reassigned David Reimer: "If they remember me at all/Make them remember me as more than a queer experiment/More than a diagram in their quarterly."
It's this sense of dignity that inhabits all of Samson's characters, and serves as a constant across the four Weakerthans albums to date. From the brief introductions we receive to stifled lives in Reconstruction Site's "One Great City!," to the narrator of Left and Leaving's "Pamphleteer," the world in which they live isn't an easy one. It's telling that Reunion Tour's cover artwork features a barren Arctic landscape breaking apart, cracks slowly reaching the edges of a city. "Got this feeling that today doesn't like me," Samson sings on "Utilities," the last song on the album. And yet its final line brings the whole work together: "Make this something somebody can use."