The Weakerthans and Everyday Tragedy

I think only I could decide that an essay is a good present, but I did, here is the essay that I was going to write last year, started, gave up, lost my notes, and was reminded of this January, started again from scratch, and so finally completed more than a year after I started the original version. I did feel silly writing an essay as a Valentine’s present, but then Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is essentially a love letter for Vita Sackville-West, so I have very good precedence.

The Weakerthans and Everyday Tragedy.

The phrase ‘everyday tragedy’ is what is called up when I listen to The Weakerthans, but this is not something I regard as a bad thing, as I will address throughout this essay. This essay will explain what I mean by the phrase, and why I think it explains The Weakerthans’ music, using examples from a wide variety of songs, mostly from the Reconstruction Site and Reunion Tour albums.
According to their LastFM page The Weakerthans are ‘a Canadian indie rock/ folk band headed by former Propaghandi member, John K Samson. Their blend of punk-influenced folk rock with witty, introspective lyrics have made them one of the most popular bands on the Canadian music scene’, who are ‘not afraid to venture into lyrical styles uncharted by their contemporaries’.[1] Despite the disparate style and subject of these lyrics I intend to show that there are also thematic preoccupations that are obvious over the range of songs, and seem to illustrate the spirit of The Weakerthans’ music. This is where the phrase ‘everyday tragedy’ comes in, as I will use it to illustrate what I see as being the spirit of the music, through both analysis of themes that recur over several songs and more detailed readings of several songs.
An obvious example of everyday tragedy is One Great City! Written about Winnipeg, the band’s home town, it is full of local references ‘The Guess Who sucked, the Jets were lousy anyway’, describing a rock band and a now-defunct ice-hockey team who moved to Arizona.[2] The song simultaneously lampoons cultural elements of the city while perhaps expressing a grudging civic pride, the city is presented as unpleasant, but theirs. The reaction is a complicated version of the contrast between the title, probably ironic, and the refrain of ‘I hate Winnipeg!’[3]
The verses of the song tell several stories of endless, petty discomforts, from the weather ‘A darker grey is breaking through a lighter one’, the crowds ‘A thousand sharpened elbows in the underground’, and the individual people ‘The driver checks the mirror seven minutes late’.[4] This is everyday tragedy, it is not big or life-changing, it is small, petty, continual, and above all pointless. This song epitomises it, and in doing so engages with theories about the problems of living in a city, for example the overcrowding and anonymity, the struggle for individuality. Writing about London Ford Maddox Hueffer noted that ‘the sense of the impersonality, of the abstraction that London is, will become one of the most intimate features of his life’, even an admirer of city life notes the impersonality and self-centeredness of city life, and how it changes the people who live there.[5] This feeling of the impersonality and abstraction of city life is summed up in another song with and experience that will be familiar to those who live in cities all over the world, ‘The shoulders we lean into on the subway, mutter an apology’, the code of city isolation is such that even the most accidental personal contact is something to be apologised for.[6]
One Great City! also contains a theme that occurs in many Weakerthans songs, that of work, especially dull, necessary work, in this case ‘in the dollar store, the clerk is closing up/ And counting loonies’.[7] This image of work is of it as being unrewarding and probably lowly paid, a view that is not at all unusual in popular music, in fact it sometimes seems obligatory for bands to have a song about how much they hate their jobs. This image is continued in other songs, more monotonous work is shown in Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call, ‘Let the waitress put the chairs up/ Let the glasses that you broke’, a momentary glimpse into an ordinary job, and the small things that make it slightly worse.[8]
The work sung about is not always the low paid, make-do jobs of waitressing or retail, in Relative Surplus Value after the misery of a plane journey comes a meeting, ‘The CEO takes me aside, I’m down 12 points and they’re selling’.[9] This suggests both the dangers of the stock market and prioritising of money over people, the narrator stands in for the failing company, ‘By the time the market opens in Tokyo/ I’ll be worthless’.[10] In Benediction the work is that of a play, ‘All the actors broke their legs’, the traditional good-luck phrase is acted out as a vision of total failure is painted, ‘The producer’s getting high/ And the audience went home’.[11] All types of activities come under the category of work in Weakerthans’ lyrics, none of them seem to be successful or happy.
It is because of the emphasis on the drudgery of work that The Weakerthans’ music reminds me of John Campbell’s web-comic Pictures For Sad Children. The comic initially focuses around Paul, a ghost, who goes back to his old job after being killed, and is often humorous in only a dark way, and often ‘a comic will end with characters staring at each other, perhaps one of them coughing’.[12] The importance of awkwardness is something I will discuss later, and is another strong connection between the two, the other recurring theme in the comic is Paul’s job, there are certainly elements of everyday tragedy in the breaking of the photocopier or the banality of training, as he tells a new employee ‘You won’t be here tomorrow or in a month or so, so you’ll understand if I don’t try to get to know you, right?’[13] Paul describes getting used to the job as ‘like riding a bike you hate’, a phrase that seems to be applicable to work in The Weakerthans lyrics as well.[14]
It is unsurprising that romance and relationships are a theme in several of The Weakerthans’ songs. Though showing evidence of everyday tragedy these relationships are often presented in a bittersweet manner. The Reasons, with the chorus ‘I know/ You might roll your eyes at this/ But I’m so/ Glad that you exist’, simultaneously expresses a honest sentiment and shows a prevalence of cynicism.[15] The narrator seems to be embarrassed of feeling anything, assuming a negative reaction to the confession, expecting it to be scorned. A reason for this is shown in the rest of the song, for example in the lines ‘And we know who we should love/ But we’re never certain how’, the awkwardness seems to suggest a fear of intimacy, despite a wish for it.[16]
This awkwardness also appears in Civil Twilight, which, recalling a past relationship, has the lines ‘I wonder if the landlord has fixed the crack/ That I stared at, instead of staring back at you’.[17] This tale of lost opportunities seems to suggest chances missed because of fear and awkwardness, and either and inability or an unwillingness to communicate.
The relationships in Weakerthans lyrics are often not romantic; in fact many songs seem concerned with the fleeting, apparently meaningful connections that we make with strangers every day. (Past-Due) talks of the obituary pages of a local paper, wondering about the people behind the photographs, ‘The places / Formal photographs refuse to mention / His tiny feet, that birthmark on her knee’.[18] It revolves around the idea that the things that make people who they really are are hidden, and somehow distasteful, they are knowingly covered over by the formal photographs, which are given agency just as the newspaper-reading subject of the song is denied it. The second verse continues with the idea of missed chances in a more obvious way, ‘The many things you owe these latest dead/… A check you didn’t sign’, as well as the missed chances there is a sense of guilt, and responsibility to the dead, a ‘Plain fear you can’t extinguish or dismiss.’[19]
Yet in other songs awkwardness and missed chances seem to be welcomed, ‘Armed with every precious failure’ and ‘I don’t want a second chance to turn my stuttering reluctance into romance.’[20] This perhaps alludes to the idea of life lived in the moment, unrehearsed, of accepting all the decisions that have been made, even if they have not been especially good ones, a rehearsed life is perhaps also a fake one. There is also an element of making-do to this; another song has the lines ‘So tell me its okay. / Tell me anything’, any connection is better than nothing.[21] These moments seem to be a method of self-protection, of fighting back against the everyday tragedy, the fact of ‘Benevolence that you’ve never known/ Or knew when you were four and can’t remember.’[22]
Childhood seems to be an uncomfortable subject for The Weakerthans, as shown above it can be seen as a time better than the present, in a nostalgic way, but also as a very confusing time, as shown in Reconstruction Site. The whole of this song is filled with nostalgia, the second verse is about a child on the way home from ‘a wedding reception in 1972’, about ‘a little boy under a table with cake in his hair’.[23] This boy becomes a symbol for childhood isolation from adults, he ‘stared at the grown up people as they danced and swayed’, there is something very sad about this boy, and his lack of connection to the people who are around him.[24] This extends to his parents, ‘And his father laughed and talked on they long ride home / And his mother laughed and talked on the long drive home’, his parents understand each other but he does not, so neither does the listener, the listener identifies with the boy rather than the adults, in both his confusion and his melancholic thoughts, ‘And he thought about how everyone dies someday.’[25]
Children are not the only helpless subjects of Weakerthans songs; the most famous helpless subject is that of Virtute the cat, narrator of two songs, based on John Simpson’s real cat. As with the child in Reconstruction Site the cat is unable to understand the adults around it, especially in Plea From A Cat Named Virtute, where the narrative asks ‘Why don’t you ever want to play?’[26] To the listener it seems likely that Virtute’s owner has come to the end of a relationship and is depressed, ‘You sleep as much as I do now…I don’t know who you’re talking to’, yet the cat is unable to understand this, and her efforts to cheer her owner are useless.[27]
However, despite her lack of understanding and her helpless position Virtute does attempt to help, offering unheard advice, ‘About those bitter songs you sing; / They’re not helping anything’, the cat takes on a mothering role as the lines between owner and pet, cat and human, are blurred, it suggests a party ‘And I’ll cater, with all the birds I can kill’.[28] The cat’s helplessness is compounded in the last verse, ‘I swear I’m going to bite you hard…If you don’t stop the self-defeating lies you’ve been repeating / Since the day you bought me home’, though the listener can sympathise with Virtute’s anger her owner would simply see another part of his world turning against him rather than a despaired effort to help, the two are hindered by a physical inability to communicate.[29]
The story of Virtute is continued in Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure. Again the relationship between pet and owner is strained, though there is mutual care between them, ’I remember the way / I would wait for you to arrive with kibble and a box full of beer’, they are to some extent dependent on each other, but Virtute still leaves, describing how ’half moon whispered “go”’, the excitement and freedom she does not have lures her away.[30] There is however the suggestion that Virtute’s leaving accomplishes what her presence cannot, and rouses her owner, so that he leaves the house to look for her, ‘missing steps in the street…Singing the sound that you found for me’.[31] The song seems to take place quite some time after Virtute has left, the tragedy in it now is Virtute’s feelings about herself rather than about her owner, it ends with the repetition of ‘But I can’t remember the sound that you found for me’, this inability for the cat to understand human language compounds the idea of being unable to communicate being the ultimate tragedy.[32]
Of all of The Weakerthans’ songs Watermark seems to be the most tragic, because of not only the inability to communicate that fills it, ‘But pauses rattle on’, but also the falseness of the emotions in it.[33] The opening lines introduce that falseness, ‘I count to three and grin/ You smile and let me in’, there is the feeling that both people are acting, but worse that they are aware that they are but unable to behave in any other way.[34]
The song is an elegy for an over-serious generation, summed up in the lines ‘We’re talented and bright / We’re lonely and uptight’.[35] The ending of the song is ambiguous, ‘That brackish line you got/ When something rose and then receded’ can be read as being the mark pure, unspoiled joy leaves on the body, which is regarded as something to be removed, the people in the song are so conditioned they do not know how to deal with the thing they desire. This is not just everyday tragedy, this is pure tragedy, perhaps the closest many of the songs come to epic tragedy. However, there is a more hopeful reading of the end of the song, the fact that joy is reached, the search for it in the line ‘Lets go play on the baggage carousel’.[36] This breaking of convention gives a hope for some kind of sustained happiness, though it also suggests that it must be fought for, the safety of convention must be lost, and the safety of all that has come before, ‘Set our watches forward like we’re just arriving here.’[37] This lines seems to suggest the importance of play and pretence, childhood has been seen to present a time of possible happiness and a return to it, or at least to some of its behaviours, has the hope of giving real happiness, as does reinvention and the breaking of convention.
Other songs that seem to convey everyday tragedy also have much happier elements in them, for example Sun In An Empty Room, which is about both moving out if a house and the way connections between people work.[38] The imagery describing moving out of the house fits with the title, it is purposely simple, imagery of ending and tidying-up, ‘The furniture’s returning to its good will home…the last month’s rent is scheming with the damage deposit.’[39] The last line sums up the simplicity of that part of the song, ‘We don’t live there anywhere (sun in an empty room)’.[40]
The song also talks of relationships, ‘The shins we kick beneath the table, that reflexive cry / The faces we meet and awkward beat too long and terrified’, these lines suggest a family relationship, something that cannot be broken, but is not a comfortable relationship.[41] These lines are more complex than those in the other half of the song, but they contain the same themes of awkwardness and moving on that can be seen both in the other half of the song and many of the songs generally.
However, for me this is also one of the most optimistic Weakerthans songs, not so much because of the lyrics but because of the way it sounds. What could be very sad and final becomes a new opportunity when accompanied by the music, which is incredibly beautiful, and more upbeat than usual for the slower Weakerthans songs. This song especially is a reminder that lyrics are written to be sung, and the music is as much an integral part of the song, as they are it should add an extra layer of meaning to a song, as it does in this case, totally changing the impression of the words.
Though the ‘gap’ between the message of the words and the message of the music is not obvious in all music it is a fairly common device, and one that is used by The Weakerthans in lots of their music, I would say the majority of their songs show it to some extent. However, it is not only the music of the songs that stop them being too tragic, and though everyday tragedy is strong in many of The Weakerthans’ songs something that can be seen as the opposite of that tragedy, hope, is also a strong presence.
This can be seen in Reconstruction Site, the ‘shiny new machine that runs on lies and gasoline / And all the batteries we stole from the smoke alarms’ sounds ominous, and is dangerous.[42] However, it is not, it ‘disassembles my despair’, it is the despair That ‘never took me anywhere / It never once bought me a drink’, the speaker acknowledges the futility of despair, and one way to read the machine is as representing hope.[43]
Other songs are also slightly deceptive, A New Name For Everything is full of everyday tragedy, ‘the map that you’ve folded wrong and the route you’ve abandoned is always the one you probably should be on’.[44] However, the narrator of the song also encourages the person they are talking to, the long list of small tragedies serves as something that inspires change and letting go. It is significant that the end lines are the most hopeful, so that it ends on a hopeful note of new beginnings, ‘So put on those clothes you never grew into and smile like you mean it for once. If you come back, bring a new name for everything.’[45]
Inspiration is important in Elegy For Gump Worsley as well, the subject, a Canadian hockey goalie, is supremely confident, ‘My face is my mask’.[46] He is especially an inspiration for ‘a nation of pudgy boys’, he is a role model for the under dog.[47] Interestingly in this song the gap between lyrics and music works in the other direction, the lyrics bring across the humour and drive of Worsley, it is the simplistic guitar and spoken words of the song that enforces that it is an elegy, a song mourning a death.
I have shown how many of The Weakerthans lyrics encompass everyday tragedy, which often occurs as loneliness, isolation and the inability to communicate. However, I believe that the beauty as well as the sadness of The Weakerthans’ lyrics has also become obvious. It is very fitting that they have two songs that are explicitly elegies, because often in elegies though there is much sadness there is also often either a sense of acceptance or a remembrance of happier times, which stops such poems from being unrelentingly sad. This seems to be how The Weakerthans’ songs function, the lyrics may be very sad, but the music is often not so, and hope works to counterbalance the everyday tragedies.

[1] Last.FM [Accessed 6th February 2009]

[2] One Great City! Reconstruction Site 2003

[3] One Great City!

[4] One Great City!

[5] Ford Madox Hueffer, The Soul Of London (London: Duckworth & Co, 1911)

[6] Sun In An Empty Room, Reunion Tour, 2007

[7] One Great City!

[8] Psalm For The Elks Lodge Last Call, Reunion Tour

[9] Relative Surplus Value, Reunion Tour

[10] Relative Surplus Value

[11] Benediction, Reconstruction Site

[12] Wikipedia <> [Accessed 8th February 2009]

[15] The Reasons, Reconstruction Site

[16] The Reasons

[17] Civil Twilight, Reunion Tour

[18] (Past-Due), Reconstruction Site

[19] (Past-Due)

[20] Aside, Left and Leaving, 2001, The Prescience Of Dawn, Reconstruction Site

[21] This Is A Fire Door, Never Leave Open, Left and Leaving

[22] This Is A Fire Door, Never Leave Open

[23] Reconstruction Site, Reconstruction Site

[24] Reconstruction Site

[25] Reconstruction Site

[26] Plea From A Cat Named Virtute, Reconstruction Site

[27] Plea From A Cat Named Virtute

[28] Plea From A Cat Named Virtute

[29] Plea From A Cat Named Virtute

[30] Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure, Reunion Tour

[31] Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure

[32] Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure

[33] Watermark, left and Leaving

[34] Watermark

[35] Watermark

[36] Watermark

[37] Watermark

[38] Sun In An Empty Room

[39] Sun In An Empty Room

[40] Sun In An Empty Room

[41]Sun In An Empty Room

[42] Reconstruction Site

[43] Reconstruction Site

[44] A New Name For Everything, Reconstruction Site

[45] A New Name For Everything

[46] Elegy For Gump Worsley, Reunion Tour

[47] Elegy For Gump Worsley