After fronting the explosive agit-punk band Propagandhi in the ’90s, John K. Samson settled into a holding pattern with his subsequent indie-rock group, The Weakerthans. That pattern doesn’t let up on Provincial, Samson’s first solo full-length. Where his jump from Propagandhi to The Weakerthans was dramatic and unexpected, Provincial’s transition into a hushed version of The Weakerthans’ folk-inflected pop seemed all but predestined. It also underscores just how much Samson, as a songwriter, has come to rely on sturdy, unremarkable, workmanlike tunes—and how much of a load his wit alone can carry.
Granted, Samson’s wit isn’t always of the knee-slapping variety. Once content to aim his barbs at politics, the music scene, and society as a whole, he’s let them become ingrown. The skeletal, cello-backed “Highway 1 East” points Provincial in a somber direction, with the roadtripping Samson confessing that he “spent every cent of your goodwill / on fossil fuels and magazines.” From there, the album’s travelogue theme deepens; many of its songs originally appeared, in different form, on the EPs City Route 85 and Provincial Road 222, and Samson filters his Canadian homeland through a series of poignant snapshots—including the wistful, feathery “The Last And,” in which he paints a haunting portrait of workplace adultery, singing, “I remember how you made me feel / I was thoughtful, I was funny, I was rare,” before bittersweetly concluding, “I know I’m just your little ampersand.”
Samson’s own little ampersand, though, is his music. While impeccably recorded and at times sumptuous, his simple compositions are often in need of a GPS. Instead of livening things up, energetic songs such as “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” and “Longitudinal Centre” wander around or just jog in place, sounding more like wayward Weakerthans castoffs than part of a cohesive solo album. And on ho-hum tracks like “Stop Error,” his sing-song, unimaginative melodies fade into the muted Canadian landscape he’s describing. But on the churning, distorted “Highway 1 West,” he at last comes close to perfecting his tender mix of punk fire and folk simmer—and in the process hits the sweet spot he’s been dancing around for years.