bus driver, David Reimer, a failed businessman, a drunk curler at the Tournament of Hearts, Virtute the Cat (again), NHL legend Gump Worsley, a couple of Edward Hopper paintings, a ferry operator who saw Bigfoot, a band touring one more time, and possibly John K. Samson himself; it's no wonder the Weakerthans take so long to make records, Samson probably has to hole up and do research for a while. Reunion Tour doesn't have the cast of dozens that you find in most concept albums or even attempted-concept albums, it's just another set of vignettes about not knowing what to say, walking slowly past houses you wish you could forget, rejection, and the belated realization that you've rejected others.
Musically it's the most 'experimental' of the Weakerthans' discs, although there's nothing here that would give any post-Kid A rock band pause (even the twittering, electronics-and-pedal-steel intro to “Utilities” merges into something approximating the band's standard meat-and-potatoes sound). And honestly, with all due respect to the other three guys (especially drums-and-percussion-and-everything man Jason Tait) the Weakerthans aren't worth a ton of attention without Samson's lyrics. He's still the only ex-punk rocker (remember Propaghandi?) whose albums are more fun to read than to listen to, which he seemingly acknowledges and abets when he formats his song lyrics in the booklets like they're paragraph long short stories. (Which they are.) At his best here he's still got some devastating lines; “The pause feels like an extra year of high school,” conveys what the about-to-be-sacked schmuck of “Relative Surplus Value” is feeling so precisely that you can't help wincing.
Which doesn't mean there aren't any tunes here. Now that I've gotten over being bitter that they'll probably never top Left and Leaving (the Canadian album of the past ten years, and I don't care how many Broken Social Scenes and Arcade Fires you pitch at it) and just resigned myself to them putting out albums that aren't quite that transcendent, this and its predecessor seem a lot more like the modest successes they are. I can notice that the opening “Civil Twilight” (whose “My chance to say something seemed so brief, but it wasn't. Now I know I had plenty of time,” sums up the Weakerthans' music perfectly) finally manages to find a speed between Samson's “Watermark” and “Everything Must Go” modes, as well as a better chorus than anything on the overrated-but-still-good Reconstruction Site.
Sometimes Samson's ur-Canadian setting and subjects seem a bit obvious (“Tournament of Hearts” is brisk and fluid but wishes it could steal some of the subtlety with which Constantines made the same almost-pun by using it to title their last album), but better that sincerity than another ironic or post-ironic songwriter. I guess the Weakerthans are our equivalent of the Hold Steady, for better or worse; their steadily, sturdily conventional rock and roll is more compelling and rich than most people would admit as they're busy gawking at the sight of the Amazing Lyricist and his Kinda Weak Voice, but Samson always seems more lovable and wise than Craig Finn; probably because instead of constructing grand, rock-and-roll-and-Catholicism mythologies, he just crawls into our minds during the worst nights alone and projects them enough that we can feel good about it again. I'll settle for less than perfect, but guys, if you could take less than four years this time it'd do my heart and my drinking habits a world of good.