The return of indie rock band The Weakerthans with their latest album, Reunion Tour, has left fans of the much-beloved Winnipeg-based group in a quandary: embrace the band's simpler, more subtle approach emphasized on the new record, or lament the band's movement away from its pop-punk influences, a change that sees lead singer John Sampson delve deeper into his introspective, sometimes self-deprecating muses.
The shift in style, a movement begun with 2003's Reconstruction Site, will undoubtedly be off-putting to those who embraced the band for its highly-accessible, energetic, quasi-punk approach so beautifully executed on 1997's Fallow and 2000's Left and Leaving. Thanks to Sampson's consistently compelling lyrics, however, this shift isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The album focuses heavily on a Canadian theme, right down to the cover art, which features, well, a lot of ice. Frequent references to snow, hockey, Bigfoot, curling and the cold loneliness of a road drenched in the dreary Manitoba winter pervade the effort, providing a framework for Sampson's simple stories of small-town characters making their way in the bleak, unforgiving Great White North.
The strength of the record's slower songs, free from the distractions of fast-paced guitar and drum, is that they allow Sampson's chilly reflections to sink in to the listener all the more.
This is exemplified in the quiet, minimalist second track, "Hymn of the Medical Oddity," which features the tasteful addition of a background keyboard, and the reflective ambiance of the mid-tempo tracks "Night Windows" and "Sun in an Empty Room."
The downside of this shift in style, however, is that ultimately The Weakerthans have a lost a portion of what made their music compelling to so many: catchy, upbeat rock songs featuring clever lyrics and the occasional level of energy to warrant a stage-dive.
One almost gets the impression that the hushed stylings sometimes serve only as a sounding board for Sampson's stories, offering relatively little in the realm of compelling musicianship other than a simple, obligatory backdrop to the blank verse poetry of the lyrics. The nearly spoken-word interlude, "Elegy For Gump Worsley," is particularly reflective of this.
This is not to say, of course, that The Weakerthans have abandoned their roots: some of the faster songs, such as opener "Civil Twilight" and the ultra-melodious "Tournament of Hearts," feature plenty of chugging power chords and are among the album's best.
Sampson's distinctive, nearly-nasal whine, easily one of the band's trademarks, continues to deliver his thought-provoking lyrics, and the understated musical approach offers the listener the opportunity to truly consider his words rather than head-bang. The simple truth is that in a lot of moments on the record, The Weakerthans sound more like Elliott Smith than the punk-enthusiasts who delivered rockers like "Aside," which graced the end credits of the movie Wedding Crashers.
Simply put, this is a record that requires a significant level of patience. For fans of the band, it is a worthy purchase, but those searching for easily-digestible, fast-beat punk won't find it here. This is a rock album, yes, but one best approached like a good book: It requires a soft chair, a good deal of time, and the willingness and desire to absorb a generous helping of old-fashioned storytelling.