Music Mondays: The Weakerthans, 'Pamphleteer'

Posted by September Blue Monday, 3 December 2007

[Part 1 of an occasional series.]

There's this movement you pick up when you spend too much time in cities. Duck your head - just a little - step sideways, turn your hands palms-in, and keep walking. "Would you like -" No. "Do you have time -" No. "Did you know -" No, and I don't want to, and please don't tell me, just let me get past you without acknowledging that you were ever there. It's not personal; it's just that I have somewhere to be, and I don't have time to stop and decide whether or not to care.

If the Weakerthans' 'Pamphleteer' was what it claims to be, a song about a lonely soul handing out pamphlets for a cause nobody's interested in and reflecting on a lost love while he does it, I'd like it less than I do now. It's sweet enough, and it's a clever conceit, weaving phrases of manifestos and protest songs into a hymn of unrequited love: 'Why do I still see you in every mirrored window, in all that I could never overcome?' When he trails off with 'I am your pamphleteer, I'm your pamphleteer,' you know it's not just the city he's singing to. Still... the power of those lines is lessened somewhat when they're is turned into a faux-profound backdrop for yet another "She's not interested in me - :(" song, surely? I'm not going to argue 'Pamphleteer' describes the history of socialism, or that it's making some grand, detached, post-post-modern comment about the material it's using, but then it's not a love song, either. More than anything, it's a song about that little sidestep dodge on a busy city street.

It would be difficult to argue that the Weakerthans are cheapening the history of left-wing protest, for a start. Lead singer John K. Samson, formerly of anarcho-punk band Propaghandi, co-founded the not-for-profit collective publishing company Arbeiter Ring; they've sung 'Solidarity Forever' on stage before, and while their own songs aren't as blatantly political as Propaghandi's, you can still feel it there. Winnipeg's Golden Boy statue becomes a 'Golden Business Boy' in 'One Great City!', crowing out his love for the town while his wrecking ball smashes it apart. (Of course, it's Winnipeg - all cities are Winnipeg in Weakerthans songs - but equally of course, it's every other city too. I heard them sing this live in England to a crowd that turned the refrain of 'I hate Winnipeg' into 'I hate Manchester', and it fit so well you couldn't even see the join.)

And if 'Pamphleteer' does shrink the political into the personal, it at least does so beautifully. You wonder how a figure eloquent enough to describe the 'rhetoric and treason of saying that I'll miss you', or present himself as a 'spectre haunting Albert Street', can be so helplessly, awkwardly silent in the face of whoever he's singing to. (I don't think any lines ever written sum up awkward as well as these ones do: 'How I don't know what I should do with my hands when I talk to you; how you don't know where you should look, so you look at my hands.') The grand, swooping chords don't clash with the quiet, half-abashed tune under the voice, but blend into it. When the fragments of protest songs and slogans turn up, there's no way to parse them neatly and keep them separate from the pamphleteer's own voice: 'Sing oh what force on earth could be weaker than the feeble strength of one like me remembering the way it could have been.' The lyrics in the liner put the line from 'Solidarity Forever' in quotation marks - 'Sing, "Oh, what force on earth could be weaker than the feeble strength of one" like me remembering...' - but that doesn't seem quite right, either. Really, what this needs is a quotation mark that fades out on a gradient. Weakerthans album liners never put line breaks in the lyrics; probably that's why.

It's the 'Solidarity Forever' line that makes it for me. This isn't a song about hopeless causes, or about one individual's romantic woes appropriating a history of political struggle. If it's unclear whether pouring out one's heart to someone who doesn't want it is a metaphor for pressing a heartfelt pamphlet to someone's chest and watching it flutter ungrasped to the ground, or vice versa, then maybe it's supposed to be. What matters is the absence of connection, the isolation, the weakness of being just one when 'just one' counts as nothing at all. If there's any kind of political principle underlying this, it's that nobody can feel like a whole person without someone else caring enough to champion whatever they care about. And that sounds like a fine one to me.