"Held like water in your shaking hands," goes the opening of the Weakerthans' explosive "Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist," "are all the small defeats the day demands." It's the third song on the Weakerthans' debut album, but it's the first one I can remember hearing. Lyrically, it's an archetypal Weakerthans song—densely worded, smart, funny, and heartfelt as hell, artfully depicting the terrible tear between youthful idealism and jaded weariness, freezing the moment, with its desperate, defeated pleas to plant bombs, sing protest songs, and "make believe we're strong."
At the time, it all seemed perfect: I had just moved from one ramshackle punk house to a shitty apartment after a summer spent backpacking; my bookshelf was half stocked with old college texts, half stocked with zines and borrowed AK Press titles; my bed was a futon on the floor; I literally hung my diploma up on the bathroom wall to seal the deal.
A little history: The Weakerthans were formed in 1997 by John K. Samson, formerly of the politically charged Canadian pop-punk band Propagandhi, who never really clicked with me, probably unfairly due to them having a dumb name. The Weakerthans retained some of Propagandhi's punk tempos while allowing Samson to explore the slower, more acoustic sounds of country and folk. Lyrically, too, the Weakerthans saw Samson tempering Propagandhi's pranksterish anarchist politics with more mature feelings, romantic sentiments, and themes of compromise, uncertainty, failure, and regret.
Life goes on. Maybe you get a slightly nicer apartment. You miss some old friends. You start to think the protests aren't changing anything, or that they're just recreation for an increasingly privileged subculture of activist punks, and so you stop going to them. You get bitter about people and the real-world possibility of utopian social structures. You find yourself more inclined to sing about your cat or last call at your local bar than about the revolution.
As presumably their fans have aged and mellowed—or sold out or given up or whatever you want to call it if you're into throwing stones—so have the Weakerthans.
Take the song "Pamphleteer," from their sublime sophomore album Left and Leaving. The narrator is a street-corner propagandist, pushing pamphlets (I imagine socialist newspapers, but your affiliations may vary) on an unreceptive rush-hour audience. It's not the sexy anarchism of Against Me! bricks breaking Starbucks windows; it's real, grueling labor—that politics isn't bomb-throwing is one letdown, that nobody even wants your pamphlet is another.
Fast-forward one album to Reconstruction Site, with its triptychs of hospital death and its bitter civic indictments of Winnipeg, and Samson has become "Our Retired Explorer," spurning not only the foot-soldier front lines of political activism, but even human affection and another round, for his hermitage: "Thank you for the flowers and the books by Derrida/but I must be getting back to dear Antarctica." Still, it's as kinetic and romantic a song as the band have ever written, right up there with the New Order–interpolating "Wellington's Wednesdays."
The Weakerthans' latest, Reunion Tour, threatens to tip the scales too far from regret to rehash—another song about Samson's cat named Virtute, another paean to last calls—but the sentiment of its more winning songs, such as the desolate "Sun in an Empty Room" or the still hopeful, tentatively thawing "Civil Twilight" just about save it.
Not that all of Samson's songs are—or need to be—about political theory and praxis. Some of the band's most touching numbers are straight-up love songs or more broadly existential laments. "Everything Must Go" takes stock of the ephemerality of relationships and life by cataloging the personal effects up for grabs at a garage sale. "My Favourite Chords" starts with gentrification and corruption, sure, but it ends up being a mash-note invitation to a too-cute DIY date.
It's all an awful long way from, say, Propagandhi's "...And We Thought Nation States Were a Bad Idea" (which is, by the way, the motherfucking jam). But there are always plenty of bands and albums that are perfect for when you're young and still know everything that's wrong with the world and how to solve it (at this very festival: Flobots, Anti-Flag). There are far fewer bands that speak to that particular disillusionment of idealism dashed or defrayed. The Weakerthans are one such rare band.