A Eulogy for The Weakerthans, the Band That Made Having Feelings Punk
Long live The Weakerthans, and long live emotion.
How do you eulogize The Weakerthans without sounding sappy? The Weakerthans were sap. They were like pure, sugary syrup poured extra thick straight from Winnipeg's finest elm trees. Listening to them felt like wearing a comfortable pair of old slippers. In the idyllic world of The Weakerthans, it was always fall, you were wearing a warm sweater, and a curling match was playing on TV. The leaves were falling outside your window, your cat brushed against your leg as you sipped your morning coffee from a ceramic mug with a witty saying on it, and you spent the day writing random thoughts about bridges and mountains down in your Moleskine notebook. The Weakerthans were a perfect Sunday afternoon in a particularly difficult year that made you feel like everything might be better soon. And now they’re gone.
In case you feel like you’re on the verge of gagging after that overly mushy introduction, good. That’s sort of the place The Weakerthans kept things—right on the verge of being too saccharine and sentimental, but reigning it in just enough. The news of their apparent break-up probably won’t come as much of a surprise to most fans—the band hadn't been very active over the last few years and hadn’t released an album since 2007’s Reunion Tour. (Bring on the hacky “The Weakerthans were still a band?” jokes.) But the band seemed to end things very unceremoniously this week, with guitarist Stephen Carroll telling CBC that the band was no more, and drummer Jason Tait seemingly echoing the sentiment with this cryptic tweet: "Word is getting out that The Weakerthans are done. Here's the song we used to take the stage to for years. Bye bye," followed by a (broken) link to John Coltrane & Thelonious Monk Septet's "Abide with Me."
In the earliest days of their existence, The Weakerthans were too unpunk for punk, and were better known as the band guilty of not being Propagandhi. In 1997, after the release of Propagandhi’s sophomore album, Less Talk, More Rock, guitarist John K. Samson amicably left the politically driven Canadian punk band to venture out on his own. To drive home the disparity between their two roads taken, he was replaced by a member of a band called Swallowing Shit, and Propagandhi morphed from simple skate punk young'uns to the heavy-hitting melodic metal thrashers they are today. But it was instantly evident that Samson was not interested in taking a path that saw him singing any more fist-in-your-face anthems about veganism and national politics for kids with chain wallets and board shorts. The Weakerthans were about, like, feelings and junk.
On The Weakerthans’ debut, Fallow, Samson eased listeners into the new project by taking two of his Propagandhi songs with him, “Letter of Resignation” and “Anchorless,” except now they weren’t jammed in between rants about class war and meat being murder. His poetic waxings about P.G. Wodehouse novels and the perils of small town living had room to breath. But with Samson’s departure still fresh in people’s minds, the band always got labeled Propagandhi Lite, or the Propagandhi J.V. team. Three years later, though, Samson and The Weakerthans cemented their own distinct identity with the release of their follow-up, Left and Leaving, which forever torched the Propagandhi association.
Left and Leaving is a perfect album. From its first line sung in Samson’s trademark nasally voice over his frail guitar picking, “Garage sale Saturday I need to pay my heart’s outstanding bills,” (good luck to any other singer earnestly pulling off that lyric) to its somber ending over a mournful piano, “Wonder why I face affection, not embrace,” there is not an off note, not a line that doesn’t hit hard, not a verse you don’t need to revisit numerous times to fully understand.
But aside from being a lyrical masterpiece, Left and Leaving’s greatest legacy is the amazing trick The Weakerthans pulled off with it—they made it punk to have an emotional side. The band was able to connect with the punks in a way that arguably hadn’t been done before. Suddenly, you could be super pissed about your local politics but still wear a nice winter scarf and keep a dream journal.
The Weakerthans also always managed to, for one reason or another, skirt the “emo” tag, likely because their lyrics largely avoided the genre's typical sad bastard break-up whining that, let’s be real, often bordered on light misogyny. Their music wasn’t the “feel bad for me” moping of Death Cab for Cutie, and it wasn’t the “I wish my ex-girlfriend would die in a fire” schtick of every band on Drive-Thru Records. The songs were all-purpose and timeless, and had more in common with poetry readings than with their musical peers. They were glimpses into a guy’s beat up diary. That guy wore his heart on his sleeve, and he was really, really fucking clever.
It’s impossible to even put together a shortlist of Samson’s best lyrics. They are all so endlessly quotable. Everybody has their own favorite, and chances are, it’ll change depending on the day (though in our feline-obsessed culture, a large fan favorite seems to be the one told from the perspective of a housecat). In their 18 years, they never wrote a bad song, though they never really had a hit song either, save for that time “Aside” played over the ending credits of Wedding Crashers. Their catalog just existed, perfectly and sweetly.
One day in the future, The Weakerthans will no doubt follow traditional suit and play some reunion/farewell run of shows and we will suredly pay them whatever ridiculous sum of money they think is fair to gaze upon them one last time. But for now, they’re gone. And if you’re looking for something to soundtrack your feelings about that, they’ve most definitely got a song for you.
Throw Left and Leaving on your speakers today. Let it crackle and come through with a final benediction we'll hum along to, before we say goodnight.
Long live The Weakerthans, and long live feelings.
Dan Ozzi is an editor at Noisey and is happy to eat his words if The Weakerthans would like to dispel these rumors. Follow him on Twitter.
Listen to Noisey's Weakerthans playlist below.