REVIEW: The Weakerthans: Reconstruction Site
The Weakerthans: Reconstruction Site [Epitaph, 2003] (mp3s)
Three words? through the rain
Inspirational music grates. It takes a particular mood to appreciate it, to open oneself up to the "you're a special snowflake" rhetoric. Part of the problem is schmaltz: inspirational tunes often full of warbling, piano balladry, cliched lyrics about "heroes" and "holding hands" and "tomorrow." And that's too bad: it's not that all of our lives need gospel-hymns to how we're all heroes who will hold our lovers' hands tomorrow, but amid the melancholy and euphoria of twenty-first century life, there's room for wisdom, comfort and a pat on the back. The Weakerthans' third LP does this, and more. These are songs about [your] beauty ("another word I'm never certain how to spell"), about a cat who wants you to get off your ass, about a protagonist who chooses to "sit here next to you and wave." Over cruising electric guitars, alt.rock poet John K. Samson shrugs his shoulders and admits that "you might roll your eyes at this," but he's "so glad that you exist."
The Weakerthans have never been as straightforward as they sound. Lyrical content aside, one half of the songs on Fallow and Left and Leaving fit in alongside Jimmy Eat World, Weezer and the Foo Fighters; but the other half abandon crunching riffs in favour of acoustic strums and a genuine folk ear. As for the words, it's no surprise to hear that Samson owns a small press (one recent release: ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE: Globalization and Anti-Capitalism). Reconstruction Site namedrops Jacques Derrida, Edward Hopper, Michel Foucault and Ernest Shackleton; the liner-notes quote Martin Amis and John Berger. These hints of intellectualism are for the most part submerged, however, beneath soaring pop-rock melodies and plain-faced urban poetry. There's something extraordinary about a song like "One Great City," an ode to everything that sucks about Winnipeg, when it somehow becomes a song about why Winnipeg is important - without ever turning away from the grey and dissatisfied faces. Samson sings of smoke-alarms, megaphones, dust, glass and penguins. He is neither as esoteric as Gordon Downie nor as adolescent as Rivers Cuomo. He sounds simply honest.
"(Manifest)," "(Hospital Vespers)" and "(Past-Due)" form a trilogy of songs that book-end and intersect the album. All three share the same chord structure, though "(Hospital Vespers)" transforms "(Manifest)"'s rousing, carpe diem rock into a twisting reverse tape-loop, and "(Past-Due)" shapes it into something ambiguous and simply precious. The songs mark the album's slow evolution: "(Manifest)" leads into "The Reasons" and "Reconstruction Site," songs of friendship and the uselessness of despair ("It never once bought me a drink"); "(Hospital Vespers)" marks a drift into doubt, towards "our impending defeat" and "The Prescience of Dawn"'s chilling closing line, "You should have known." But with "(Past-Due)," there is once again a turn to the Weakerthans' beautifully true, measured words of support: "Give what you can: to keep, to comfort this plain fear you can't extinguish or dismiss."
Unfortunately, it's only here, in these moments of coming-to-grips and living-on, that Reconstruction Site really shines. "Our Retired Explorer" is an electric, exciting cut, but elsewhere nothing stands above the rest of the Weakerthans' oeuvre: the melodies are no more dazzling, the lyrics no more astute. Though it's hardly an insult to say that this record meets the standard set by Left and Leaving, it's disappointing that a few years and a label-switch haven't done anything to advance or renew the Weakerthans' good-but-not-yet-transcendent abilities. Though Reconstruction Site will be welcome on any rock-listener's stereo, it will not likely win a spot on anyone's desert island. It's far more useful as a lamp in the rain, casting a small glow through the grey and the wet.