Heartbreaking Bravery

stevenmps2@gmail.com | @steven_mps | @hbreakbravery

Tag: The Weakerthans

John K. Samson – Select All Delete (Stream)

john-k-samson

EDITOR’S NOTE: This series of posts reflects back on some of the best material to be released over the past few weeks. Each post with this heading is a part of this series. After this series has concluded regular coverage will resume. 

Winter Wheat‘s an extraordinary album that arrived just in time for the weather’s calm descent into desolation. Anyone that’s paid attention to this site’s most recent string of posts will have seen two of the record’s songs — “Virtute at Rest”, the culmination of the shattering Virtute trilogy, and “Postdoc Blues” — covered to great extent. The album’s quietly devastating opener, “Select All Delete”, now joins their ranks.

For more than a decade, Samson has excelled at subverting ballads but “Select All Delete” finds the songwriter operating on a different level. The amount of sheer despair that informs “Select All Delete” feels bold even for someone who has a noted reputation for reducing listeners to tears. From the shuffling brushes on the snare to the defeated vocal delivery, there’s an odd absence of hope in “Select All Delete”, which sets the tone for the rest of Winter Wheat.

In one of the most gorgeous moments of any song all year, a wordless backing vocal swoops in to accentuate the chorus before the whole thing gives way to a spare, somber piano figure. There’s an undeniable elegance that runs through “Select All Delete” that winds up enhancing the sorrow at the song’s center. Over a handful of records, Samson’s never presented a narrator as hopeless and lost as the one that serves as the engine for “Select All Delete”, which makes it all the more effective. It’s a startling development, a breathtaking song, and another moment of delicate perfection from one of this generation’s most gifted songwriters. Hit play and give in to its weight.

Listen to “Select All Delete” below and pick up a copy of Winter Wheat here.

Pleas, Departures, and Reconciliations: The Virtute Trilogy

john-k-samson

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 made 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.

Watch This: Resuscitations, Pt. I

Two Watch This posts will run tonight, bringing the series back up to the current release cycle. After more than 100 entries and several long-form packages, Watch This has only managed to expand in both scope and range. The underlying principle remains steadfast: this is a project to celebrate the very best in live performance video, one of the most under-recognized and under-appreciated multimedia art forms in the music and film world. An intense amount of craft is required to make a live video memorable (or, failing that craft, a formidable level of personality) and some of the people who are brave enough to make entries turn in unforgettable work.

Below are 25 great performances from 25 artists who are worth exploring. Whether it’s PUP tearing through the strongest opening 1-2 punch any record’s boasted this year, Courtney Barnett putting her heart into a gentle solo rendition of “Depreston“, Midnight Reruns unveiling a new song, or Small Houses putting a warm spin on a Weakerthans classic, there are a lot of moments to appreciate embedded into this compilation. Old favorites and emerging acts found themselves posited as the centerpiece(s) of artful documentation and this installment of Watch This is a presentation of those documents. So, as always, turn up the volume, calm down, lean in, and Watch This.

1. Summer Cannibals – Go Home (KEXP)
2. Sunflower Bean – Easier Said (The Current)
3. Meat Wave – Delusion Moon (Ratio Beerworks)
4. Small Houses – Watermark (Onder Ivloed)
5. PUP – If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will + DVP (Stiegl)
6. Bird Laww – In My Sleep (Public Radio /\)
7. The Black Angels – Better Off Alone (Jam in the Van)
8. Mise En Scene – Show Me You’re Real (BreakThruRadio)
9. Wolf Solent – Countless Minds (Sea Records)
10. Courtney Barnett – Depreston (The Current)
11. The Coathangers – Make It Right (Paste)
12. Midnight Reruns – Warm Days (Set List)
13. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw + Doroth (The Daily Indie)
14. Katie Von Schleicher (Jenn Harrington)
15. Emily Yacina – Soft Stuff (This Has Got To Stop)
16. Bob Mould – Voices In My Head (Sound Opinions)
17. Palehound – Healthier Folk (Radio K)
18. Hemming – All I Want (Weathervane)
19. Odio Paris – En Junio (BalconyTV)
20. Mike Krol – Neighborhood Watch (Radio K)
21. Journalism – Watching & Waiting (BreakThruRadio)
22. David Bazan – Oblivion (Little Elephant)
23. Murder By Death – Shiola (Paste)
24. Lucy Dacus – Green Eyes, Red Face (BreakThruRadio)
25. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Clean Slate (3RRR)

Home for the Holidays & A Guide to Surviving (Mixtape 001)

Well, it’s been a brief but substantial fifty day run and this, the 50th post, seemed as good a place as any to celebrate something so small and meaningless. To that end, Heartbreaking Bravery is offering up its first official mixtape; Home for the Holidays. Look for one every fifty posts. Some will have themes, some will just serve as reviews for the past near-two-months of coverage the site provides.

Home for the Holidays was a unique challenge. For the songs to qualify they had to fit within the general aesthetic of what Heartbreaking Bravery would normally cover- they would also have to mention Christmas without being a Christmas-specific song. All of these songs are here for a reason and deserve to be heard. A welcome alternative to the endless barrage of the same twenty songs getting played in seemingly every location. Both the mixtape and the accompanying guide to surviving are below.


1. Tenement – Spit in the Wind

Did anyone honestly expect this list to start with anything else? It’s no secret how this site feels about this band. They’ve mastered the exploration of lower middle-class difficulty and it really comes through on the chorus of this Napalm Dream standout. “Father pissing on the Christmas tree, suicide for the family” is a masterclass in both explicit and implicit imagery as well as tone-setting.

2. The Wombats – Moving to New York

Sleep-deprivation, needless excitement, and suspecting disappointment. “Looks like Christmas came early” has never sounded so true. 

3. Sundials – Christmas Day

One of 2013’s most exceptional compilations was the collection of Sundials songs from 2009 to 2012. “Christmas Day” closed the collection out with flare, emphasizing how ugly financial situations can be made ten times worse by the holidays with a surprising amount of verve. 

4. The Weakerthans – Exiles Among You

The Weakerthans were (are?) one of the most consistently impressive bands on the circuit and released a few records that qualify as classics. On their standout sophomore effort Left & Leaving was this gem, that included a heartbreaking moment where the protagonist shoplifts for Christmas and ignores her family. A perfectly executed example of estrangement.

5. Titus Andronicus – No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future

On Titus Andronicus’ masterpiece The Monitor, the band managed to cover an endless arsenal of subjects. One of the strongest moments in a record full of them was “No Future Part Three” with its rapid shifts in pace and tone. There’s anger, there’s grim determination, a palpable sense of sadness, and a devastating Christmas list. 

6. Neutral Milk Hotel – Two-Headed Boy

One of 2013’s biggest moments was the return of Neutral Milk Hotel, prompting many to revisit In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea and “Two-Headed Boy” in particular. That song contains a fierce ending of bitter abandonment set under Christmas trees, elevating the importance of the act. Brutal, harsh, and brilliant. 

7. Waxahatchee – Rose, 1956

There are very few records as pointed and barbed as American Weekend, a record that’s only managed to grow stronger with time. “Rose, 1956” stands out for a variety of reasons but the mention of Christmas Eve at the song’s opening drives home how specific it is, which makes it more revealing in turn. 

8. Bon Iver – Blood Bank

Bon Iver is almost too obvious of a choice for this but it’s hard to look past the muted elegiac title-track of the band’s sole EP. Not only do the levels of wistfulness feel appropriate but the song nicely underscores the possibility of truly understanding difficult moments. One of Bon Iver’s most stunning moments. 

9. Why? – The Fall of Mr. Fifths

Why? have always managed to effortlessly evoke very specific feelings with their arrangements alone. Yoni Wolf’s lyrics generally accentuate that feeling masterfully and “Mr. Fifths” is no exception. There’s an underlying theme of fear and obsession here that touches on the rising death rates that surround the holiday season. 

10. The Hold Steady – One for the Cutters

Quite possibly The Hold Steady’s most inventive moment, this harpsichord-driven tale paints the most realistic portrait of the sort of culture that exists in the shadows the band has managed in years. An absolutely stunning achievement that culminates in the central character’s defeated-beyond-reason return to her family at Christmas. 

11. Sparklehorse – Little Fat Baby

Mark Linkous’ penchant for subtlety resonates throughout this song, in part an understated allegory about (seemingly) the prominence of Christmas. It’s a subdued-yet-jarring yarn that feels intensely personal. 

12. Belle & Sebastian – I Don’t Love Anyone

Fleeting moments of self-doubt and occasional resentment spring up in early winter more than anyone would like to admit. Self-evaluation becomes a bitter process and all of the potential disappointment can manifest itself outwards. The best way to deal with it is just to acknowledge it and move on.

13. The National – It Never Happened

“We look younger than we feel and older than we are” is a beyond perfect way to describe the holiday hangover that’s constantly present, lingering around the corner. The easygoing pace of “It Never Happened” mirrors the pose some people will themselves into just to survive the rougher patches.

14. Okkervil River – Where the Spirit Left Us

The first of of two Okkervil songs on this list, “Where the Spirit Left Us” pinpointed a certain kind of well-informed nostalgia that was brought to life in a dazzlingly vivid manner. There’s a small-town longing that matches up nicely with the resigned minutiae  surrounding any large family gathering.

15. The Weakerthans – My Favorite Chords

John K. Samson does environmental setting better than almost anyone penning lyrics today. The fact that The Weakerthans can often be described as wintry only heightens the reason for this song’s inclusion.

16. Tom Waits – Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis

A wildcard among these 21 tracks, “Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis” qualifies based on the title, not a lyric contained within the song. One of Waits’ most towering achievements and one of the best moments on his classic Blue Valentine.

17. Ben Folds Five – Brick

Did you really expect this not to make the list? It’s a song about the aftermath of a Christmas Eve abortion. One of the most frighteningly realistic songs in recent memory. At the very least, let this one invoke deep sympathy.

18. Palace Songs – Christmastime in the Mountains

Okkervil River artist Will Schaff brought this song to the list as it was experiencing a rough draft dating back to last December. “Christmastime in the Mountains” is stark, beautiful, and nicely summarizes the empty feelings that can occasionally hit at this time of year.

19. Why? – Kevin’s Cancer

Yoni Wolf has been operating in his own territory for a long time now. This is the second Why? song to be included but the way Wolf and company operate only furthers situational reality. 

20. Elliott Smith – King’s Crossing

From A Basement on Hill bafflingly exists simultaneously as one of the most personal and impersonal records to be released in the past 15 years. It’s posthumous status elevates the impact of searingly revealing songs, yet those involved with it say that the record was far from finished and released with only the mixes Elliott had left behind when he tragically passed away. “King’s Crossing” stands out as one of the record’s most personal (and most biting) moments, reflecting the holiday’s darker spirit.

21. Okkervil River – Calling and Not Calling My Ex

This is the song that inspired the idea for this collection several years back. It’s Sheff at his most pointed. Sleigh bells in the background offer up an ever fuller world-building experience for an environment surrounding the introspection that often hits hardest towards the end of the year.

Happy Holidays.

HB