Like an epic poem, John K. Samson sings the life, death and after-life of Virtute the Cat who speaks to her owner about depression, resilience, disappointment and letting go.
From her introduction in 2003’s “A Plea from a Cat Named Virtute” on the Weakerthans stellar Reconstruction Site, to “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure”, and finally with “Virtute at Rest” off of Samson’s solo record Winter Wheat (2016) we are taken on a heart breaking journey as a cat seems to give all it can to an owner that just can’t seem to get out of his own way.
The intimacy and honesty of Samson’s songwriting paint these incredibly vibrant and depressing real moments with a cat philosophizing to her unaware owner.
The first lines of “Plea”: “Why don’t you ever want to play / I’m tired of this piece of string” reveal the frustration and emptiness of the owner and the cats life. Virtute’s frustration continues in being forced to listen to “the bitter songs” he sings in the empty apartment. Then, with optimistic rock backing him up, he suggests a dinner party where she’ll provide the food “with all the birds [she] can kill” and he can invite his sister “if she doesn’t bring her Bassett hound.” Virtute hopes that this might spark some change, some emergence from the slump. Resolution triumphs at the end with Virtute promising to “taste [his] tinny blood” if doesn’t realize he’s strong. Musically, the song slows to a crawl here and builds back up to an optimistic outro.
In chapter two, “Departure,” Virtute has left at some point and through a stripped down, spare arrangement she describes the downfall that first brought her in but then seemed to push her away. Joining her owner to escape the winter cold, she talks about her previous freedom and the home she found when he’d return stumbling (“missing steps in the street”) with food “and a box of beer” that she’d scratch at until he made the “sound that he found for [her].” They share moments of intimacy and safety where his soft breathing made her content. But, among a rising tone and sorrowful guitar solo Virtute describes that she forgot what made her stay there and has left.
In the closing tale, Virtute exists as a ghost or spirit in the back of the owner’s mind. The owner has recovered somewhat with sobriety and medication. In an even more quiet and empty arrangement, Virtute “paws at the synapses / bright bits of string” living in his owners memories. She promises to “dig in [her] claws when [he] strays” and acknowledges that the key now is rest, forgiveness, and accepting who you are. It suggests the fight is over, the game has been won and this cat that has seen it all can speak now to the owner and say “well done.”
I’ve made a playlist of all three so that you can go on the journey. After which if you dig what you hear check out The Weakerthans (Left & Leaving and Reconstruction Site are a good start) and Samson’s more recent album Winter Wheat.
P.S., In an interview with the independent Samson breaks a lot hearts, revealing Virtute never actually existed but is instead a composite of several cats he’s known and loved and the songs themselves are not purely biographical but thematic portraits of the issues they discuss. Which is a good reason to appreciate the distillation of beauty that art brings.