Twenty years on, the Weakerthans’ Left and Leaving is not only a handbook for disillusioned twenty-something-year-olds, but an album where the disillusioned of any age can still find themselves in.
When I was in high school, a boy named Ben was aghast because I had never heard of the Weakerthans. A few days later, he came to school and handed me a mix CD with his favourite songs from the band’s most recent albums, Reconstruction Site (2003) and Reunion Tour (2007).
I immediately fell in love with the Weakerthans’ twangular rock ways and the richly poetic lyrics of lead singer John K. Samson. Over two decades into his career, Samson continues to be one of the finest lyricists around. After playing Ben’s mix countless times, I worked backwards through the Weakerthans’ catalogue, absorbing every song on Reunion Tour and Reconstruction Site before reaching Left and Leaving, their sophomore album released twenty years ago on July 25.
Left and Leaving felt different from the Weakerthans albums that I knew. It’s rougher and more raw, aligning more fully with each members’ punk origins. But as Michael Barclay writes in his Left and Leaving anniversary piece, “[The Weakerthans were] not another shitty emo band. These were not mall punks on the Warped Tour.” Left and Leaving didn’t cater to trends or align with any one particular sound. Shitty emo band lovers and mall punks called me a poser for not liking the “right kind” of punk music a few years before I heard Left and Leaving, and here were the Weakerthans placing their chugging power-chord fueled “Exiles Among You” — which I’m sure would have delighted those name-callers — beside the alt-country heart-eyes of “My Favourite Chords.”
Left and Leaving is a handbook for the disillusioned twenty-something year old. That said, the disillusioned of any age will likely find themselves in this record just like I continue to do as I leave my twenties behind. But so many of Samson’s verses are intrinsically linked to the despair that emerges in your twenties when you realize how hard life is. They also speak to messy, youthful love. The world feels like it’s out to get somebody on “Slips and Tangles” when Samson sings “I greet another door that opens in.” To the highest bidder, Samson’s narrator offers “a sense of wonder only slightly used” (“Everything Music Go!”) and on “This Is A Fire Door, Never Leave Open,” anxiety about connection is boiling over: “So tell me it’s okay, tell me anything. Or show me there’s a pull, unassailable.” “Aside,” the album’s crowning twenties anthem, is doused in the kind of disheveled self-love that somebody who has been told to focus on their breathing a few too many times but is still determined to keep going might employ: “I’m unconsoled, I’m lonely, I am so much better than I used to be.”
The title track of Left and Leaving is one of those monumental songs that remains a constant fixture in your song cycle although your relationship with it changes. With a steadily picked guitar rhythm under their feet, Samson’s restless narrator has returned home only to realize they have outgrown it. My friend and I text this song to one another every time we change our clocks (“spring forward, fall back down”) while another friend listens to “Left and Leaving” and thinks about her Dad who passed away (“The sidewalks are watching me think about you”). In the song’s final verse, a car is plowing through the darkness on a highway that feels endless. It’s unclear what lies ahead but as you keep moving forward, Samson offers comfort in the darkness and patiently sings, “I wait in 4/4 time.”