I think I’ve heard them both enough to go on record as saying I prefer the Mountain Goats to the Weakerthans, but John K. Samson’s lyric in “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure” is the saddest I’ve ever heard. Sadder than “Woke Up New.” Sadder even than “Waving at You.” I’ve heard it about six times and I still can’t sing along to the closing lines without getting too choked up to continue.
I’ve been trying to work out just what it is that makes this song so devastating to me. I’m willing to risk killing the magic to do it because, honestly, I’d like to be able to listen to Reunion Tour all the way through on the bus home without embarrassing myself. It probably has some other good songs on it.
Virtute has some backstory in an earlier Weakerthans song, “Plea from a Cat Named Virtute,” It’s a fantastic song: not nearly as heartbreaking as this one, but the glimpse of Virtute’s attempts to shake some life into her listless human makes the revelation that they came to naught that much sadder.
The imagery in the further backstory in “Departure,” as Virtute reflects on the time with her human and contrasts it with the life she’s living now, is knife-sharp. We get a snapshot of her human looking for her, “anger pleading / in an uncertain key / Singing the sound that you found for me.” What could “the sound that you found for me” mean but Virtute’s name? Despite her intelligence, she’s a cat. She doesn’t know what it means, just that it’s a sound, and that her human found it for her. And now he’s calling it in the street, but this time she’s not answering.
We can guess from her description of a “noisy home / Full of pigeons and places to hide” that Virtute now lives in a (re?)construction site, though perhaps the best clue is the “abandoned machines / Waiting for their men to return.” And this reminds Virtute when she used to wait for her man to return “with kibble / and a box full of beer,” the latter a symptom of his indolence, the former evidence that he still cared about her, like his calling her name in the street in the first verse.
That’s sad enough, but Samson has a few more twists of the knife left. One, immediately after: “How I’d scratch the empties / Desperate to hear”—you guessed it—”you make the sound that you found for me.” Desperate to hear the sound that she’s now left behind forever because the life that went along with it was too unbearable.
But oh, those fleeting moments that weren’t, as all the instruments drop out but one lonely guitar:
After scrapping with the ferals and the tabby / Let you brush my matted fur. / How I’d knead into your chest while you were sleeping / Shallow breathing made me purr.
And after that quiet reminiscence about the good times, now just a distant memory, the final emotional sucker punch, as the loud guitars kick in and Samson’s voice strains into a mournful melody in his upper register:
But I can’t remember the sound that you found for me / I can’t remember the sound that you found for me / I can’t remember the sound.
The horrible revelation that Virtute can’t even remember her own name now, in the only way she knows how to even express it.
Really, why should I be embarrassed about crying to this on the bus? How could I not? How could anybody not?