John K. Samson has penned some impressive lyrics as the frontman for beloved folk-rockers the Weakerthans, but none may better capture the heart of his music than the simple refrain of “I hate Winnipeg.” It’s the half-joking lyrical crux of 2003’s “One Great City!” a song about Samson’s love-hate relationship with his home town, a city he often laments, but one he never leaves. Provincial, his first full-length solo release, is essentially that song applied to all of Manitoba.
His provincial pride is obvious through the numerous well-researched references to its history, places, and people. Its first tuberculosis sanatorium pops up in both the pop punk of “When I Write My Master’s Thesis,” and again in the poignant “Letters in Icelandic from the Ninette San,” which also nods at Manitoba’s Icelandic heritage, while “Petition” tells the story of hockey player Reggie “The Riverton Rifle” Leach. Others like “Heart of the Continent”—the musical sequel to “One Great City!”—and “Grace General” shine a light on its bleaker aspects.
Strip away the specifics and most of these songs could be set anywhere. “Cruise Night” is as much about the Winnipeg tradition as the adolescent quest to be “cool.” Likewise, the lonely protagonist of “Stop Error” and the heartbroken teacher of “The Last And” can be found from Victoria to St. John’s. By the end of the album, Samson’s point is clear: there’s a little Manitoba in all of us.