Pleas, Departures, and Reconciliations: The Virtute Trilogy
by Steven Spoerl
Not many things can interrupt this site’s regular coverage or alter its standard presentations but an unexpected resolution to one of the most affecting trilogies since the turn of the century isn’t an everyday occurrence. Reflecting on the importance of this feat doesn’t just feel right, it feels necessary. For all that this music meant to scores of people, for how many people it helped through difficult situations, and for how important this story became, it’s time to take an extended look at the narrative centered around one of modern music’s most tragic relationships: the one between a pet owner in the throes of depression and Virtute the Cat.
In 2003, John K. Samson had left his duties behind the kit in Propaghandi in an earnest effort to pursue the music he’d been writing on his own. His band, The Weakerthans, had been steadily building momentum behind their first two records, 1997’s Fallow and 2000’s Left & Leaving. The release of Reconstruction Site in August 2003 changed the course of Samson’s career.
Capitalizing on the acclaim that had accumulated behind the band’s first two records and a bold signing move from Epitaph Records, Reconstruction Site quickly became The Weakerthans most commercially and critically successful work. One of the standouts: “Plea From A Cat Named Virtute”, a song told from the perspective of a cat struggling to understand the depressive slump of its owner.
More than just a lyrically impressive feat (unsurprising, considering Samson’s position as an adjunct professor for the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Program), “Plea From A Cat Named Virtute” landed with crushing emotive weight. It’s unlikely that anyone knew this at the time of Reconstruction Site‘s release but it would go on to serve as the foundation for a trilogy of songs to be released over the course of 13 years.
Being based out of Winnipeg was always a source of both pride and frustration for Samson (a trait tenderly documented in the extraordinary “One Great City!“), who would frequently reference the city’s influence and history. Winnipeg’s motto, UNUM CUM VIRTUTE MULTORUM, when translated from Latin becomes “One with the strength of many” and provides the trilogy’s titular feline with not only an elevated sense of character and purpose but a clear connection to Samson’s home, making the extended narrative uncomfortably realistic, even with Virtute acting as an agent of both hope and belief.
The response to “Plea From A Cat Named Virtute” was overwhelming from the outset but continues to pale in comparison to the reaction of the story’s next chapter. 2007’s Reunion Tour, the band’s last studio album before going on an extended hiatus and eventually calling it quits on 2015, boasted what many still consider to be one of the most devastating songs ever recorded. “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure” finds the owner fully lost to a depressive malaise, neglecting Virtute at every step, causing a discord among the two; as one becomes hopeless, the other grows lost.
There’s an exhaustively-realized and lived-in world that Samson creates around these characters, drawing from “Plea From A Cat Named Virtute” to strengthen the heartrending nature of its direct sequel. As Virtute attempts to navigate life on her own after enduring a long stretch of silence and inaction, there’s a sense of hope to be found in a heartbreaking defeat. It’s unimaginably painful to watch someone you love give up and, over nearly eight minutes, Samson presents one of the most acute descriptions of that singular agony.
There’s a legitimate pain to the renewed emphasis on Virtute’s perspective in “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure”, which meticulously chronicles the life the cat leads after departing from its owner. Memory recedes — the song’s shattering final line, “I can’t remember the sound that you found for me”, remains one of the most heartrending moments I’ve ever experienced in music — frostbite takes hold, and Virtute ultimately resigns to a familiar pattern as an emotionally abandoned stray. It’s a brutally sad passage that’s deeply upsetting to anyone that’s grown frustrated at similar causal relationship dynamics.
In playing to empathetic impulse and human (and inhuman) nature, The Weakerthans crafted a legitimately unforgettable sequence. For nearly a decade, it seemed as if the final word on the cat that once responded to the name Virtute had been issued- until Samson revealed the tracklist for his just-released solo album, Winter Wheat. There was a pause that took hold after a collective realization that Winter Wheat was slated to end with a track called “Virtute at Rest”.
It’s a testament to the overwhelming strength of its predecessors that some people have pledged outright to not listen to the song out of fear their mental wherewithal wouldn’t be up to the task of another chapter. That wariness is fully warranted as Samson finds yet another angle to elevate the tragic nature of the story, this time framing the narrative as Virtute resurrected in the mind of her recovering owner, who’s now coming to grips with past events and desperately seeking the reassurance that was offered years ago.
As the owner starts to understand the full extent of Virtute’s importance, the weight of the moment is felt in full, even as the music recedes to one of the sparsest arrangements of Samson’s storied musical career. Never has the relationship between the two principle characters been addressed more directly than it is in the song’s mid-section:
You should know I am with you
Know I forgive you
Know I am proud of the steps that you’ve made
Know it will never be easy or simple
Know I will dig in my claws when you stray
Those lyrics rest at the heart of a song that runs under 100 seconds yet still has the power to reduce anyone with even a passing familiarity to the story to tears. Invoking nostalgia, trauma, and understanding, there’s a finality present in “Virtute at Rest” that winds up lending an elevated impact to each carefully-chosen word. Samson sounds simultaneously distraught and assured, his voice lightly trembling, threatening to buckle under the considerable weight of what he’s constructed while guiding it to a gentle close.
The Weakerthans meant a lot to a lot of people, myself included, but it’s hard to imagine anything being more representative of the legacy they left behind than the story of Virtute. Those who had cats saw Virtute as a stand-in, those who didn’t gained a fictional adoptee. Everyone that connected to the plight of the characters wound up being moved immeasurably by their fractured relationship, which Samson suffused with an inexplicable amount of grace and compassionate warmth. All told, The Virtute Trilogy deserves to be remembered as a staggering masterpiece. Very few people have accomplished similar feats with the poise and poignancy that came to define each of the three installments.
In a way, it’s appropriate that Samson ends this divorced from The Weakerthans project where it started (while still incorporating various members of the band for his solo work) as it serves as a nice reflection of the dynamics at play in “Virtute at Rest”. Separated in full but always partially together, there’s an unbreakable bond that’s subtly emphasized through the most minute details. It’s a perfect resolution and it’s easy to tell Samson’s fully invested in the final words of the story as a meaningful future lingers on Virtute’s one-time owner’s horizon, taking stock of the rear view one last time: let it rest and be done.
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The final two legs of this trilogy make me cry. Every time.
Fantastic article! The final two songs of the trilogy reduce me to tears every time I hear them. All three are the most beautiful songs ever written in my opinion. I found the Weakerthans and JKS through Frank Turner – who is also a huge fan, and regularly covers Plea, and other Weakerthans songs.
[…] and included many new tracks off of his latest album Winter Wheat. The set also featured the Virtute the Cat trilogy of songs back-to-back-to-back making the whole room quite emotional. Afterwards he took a short […]
“17th Street Treatment Centre”, also on Winter Wheat, is part of the series and chronicles Virtute’s owners journey in recovery. I get a lump in my throat every time he sings “the one about the spring the cat ran away” as part of the 12-step process. 😿
Thank you for this article. It is good to know that I am not the only one reduced to tears by this trilogy. It also explained why John K Samson wrote a song about postdoc blues – he is an academic.
Great article Stephen.
I still operate on the unverified fan theory that the reference to “noisy home” and “abandoned men” who wait for their men, is a clue that Virtute, while separated from her owner, eventually meets up with the couple in love from My Favorite Chords, and her memory, in the mind of her owner is his own imagined expression rather than a disembodied spirit. In my mind, she’s sitting there, with that new deck of cards, scratching notes into those abandoned machines.
Does that story check out? Who knows. Does it eradicate the emotional potency of the trilogy? As someone who’s throughly convinced himself of the truth of this conspiracy, I can tell you, for damn sure, no; I still can’t get through the opening notes with welling up, for so many reasons, probably, like no other piece of music I can remember.
But in that there’s some sort of comfort to be found too.
When you think about her forgetting the sound that he found for her, you can rest a little knowing that maybe she found someone else’s sound, on that old guitar, maybe with some futon revolutionists.
Do I think that was John’s intent? Probably not. Do I think, if I had the chance to corner him and take him to task, that he’d pause, think about it and go, huh. Sure.
If you can find a contradiction in it, I don’t want to hear it. I can wilt under the weight of this whole trilogy in all it’s perfect glory without the unnecessary gravitas of an actual death involved in my sympathetic caretaker. I know her voice, and his voice, and the word choices are clear enough to let me think that when writing it, he at least wanted to give us this possibility. I’m probably not right, but think about it, add My Favorite Chords to the end of the trilogy and tell me that maybe, just even for a second, that you don’t believe that could be true.
This world has enough love and sadness in it that I feel perfectly obliged to take a song and draw the lines between the constellations of it’s shared Manitoban universe to remind me that even though we’re all broken and all a little tired of being broken, that that guilty voice in the back of our head doesn’t always know what happened. Just because it thinks she went on to a short, lonely life doesn’t mean that it’s right. Look at him. How right could he be about anything? If he’s anything like all of us, it’s probably just as hard for him to be right about anything.
“Steven.” Goddammit. Apologies.
Wonderfully written except for the fact that it is a four song saga not a trilogy. Three songs from the point of view of virtute, and one posthumous ode to our feline emotionally navigational mascot as the owner reflects on his lost friend during his recovery from alcohol addiction and depression. It’s very important to note that on the 21st day he did dance to that 12-step and admit he was powerless… a Realization he came to only by losing the friend he thought he’d always have while recovering in the 17th St. treatment centre.