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John K. Samson: Brainy And Big-Hearted

In "When I Write My Master's Thesis," John K. Samson juggles a lively mind and a directionless heart.
Jason Halstead
In "When I Write My Master's Thesis," John K. Samson juggles a lively mind and a directionless heart.

John K. Samson has lived several lives as a musician: He played on a pair of paint-stripping leftist punk records as a member of Propagandhi in the '90s before exploring his sweeter side with The Weakerthans. Now that he's putting out a solo record — Provincial, out Jan. 24 — he's refining the latter sound while starting over, at least for the moment, under his own name. Provincial continues to mine Samson's observations of life as an open-hearted Canadian book-reader type, while couching his reference-rich storytelling in sweet, guitar-powered pop hooks.

Judged by its title alone, "When I Write My Master's Thesis" threatens to cross over into self-parody: Samson knows his way around postgraduate woes, and they're not top-of-mind concerns for most listeners. But this is a sneakily powerful song, as Samson examines the way a lively mind can function at cross purposes with a directionless heart. The misbegotten, couch-bound academic at the song's core ought to sound familiar to anyone who's stuck around a college town, but Samson does more than just draw a vivid character sketch in "When I Write My Master's Thesis." He also captures the maddening way that humanity's biggest thoughts can get bottled up in disorganized and unambitious brains — and, by extension, unsatisfying lives.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)