Canadian singer-songwriter couple John K. Samson and Christine Fellows recently released a new EP of songs under the name Vivat Virtute — also the name of the couple's online craft store — which includes a new tune that tangentially touches on the late life of a cat named Virtute. It's the fifth such song in a decades-long saga about this fictional cat that will absolutely melt your heart.
Samson is, in my humble opinion, one of the single greatest songwriters in history. Though perhaps not a household name, he has a unique knack for crafting gorgeous short stories in melodies that spark so much insight into the human condition, without ever being pedantic or judgmental. The unofficial "Virtute Saga" is sort of the perfect encapsulation of this. The first chapter, "Plea From A Cat Named Virtute," was the fifth track on the 2003 album Reconstruction Site, recorded by Samson's then-band, The Weakerthans. The lyrics are written from the point of view of the eponymous cat, whose owner is suffering from a serious bout of depression, slipping into alcoholism. Of course, the cat — articulate though it may be, being a songwriter and all — still lacks the language to understand what the owner is going through. But she still wants to help:
All you ever want to do is drink and watch TV
And frankly that thing doesn't really interest me
I swear I'm going to bite you hard
And taste your tinny blood
If you don't stop the self-defeating lies
You've been repeating since the day you brought me home
I know you're strong
Virtute returned in 2007, on the band's follow-up album, Reunion Tour, in the song "Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure." By now, the cat's owner has slipped even deeper, and has stopped taking care of Virtute entirely, to the point where the poor kitty can't recall the human name that her beloved owner had once given her.
I remember the way I would wait for you
To arrive with kibble and a box full of beer
How I'd scratch the empties desperate to hear
You make the sound that you found for me
(Also, apparently Steven Page from Barenaked Ladies covered this song, in sort of a lounge style? Those rascally Canadians!)
The story of Virtute ended there for a while, left unresolved for nearly a decade until the release of John K. Samson's second solo album, Winter Wheat, in 2016. "17th Street Treatment Centre" arrives in the middle of the record, telling a short vignette of a person's experience with an in-patient addiction recovery program (Samson himself got sober in 2013, though I don't know if he attended a similar program). Though told from a human point of view, the song subtly exposes one telling detail:
On the 21st day I danced through the 12 step
examined, admitted I'm powerless to
Sang the one about the spring the cat ran away
on the 21st day of my court-ordered stay, here
(When Samson performs the Virtute saga live, he typically begins with "17th Street" and then moves through the rest of the sequence in an otherwise linear fashion, so that I can just cry for 15 minutes straight)
The final song on Winter Wheat returns us to Virtute's perspective — sort of. In "Virtute at Rest," the cat sings to her owner from some place beyond, forgiving him for the mistakes he made as he suffered from his diseases, so they might both move on in their own ways.
Now that the treatment, and anti-depressants,
and seven months sober have built me a bed
In the back of your brain where the memories flicker
And I paw at the synapses bright bits of string.
You should know I am with you.
Know I forgive you.
Know I am proud of the steps that you've made.
Now, on the new Vivat Virtute EP that Samson created with his wife, the song "All My Ex-Boyfriends Are You" concludes with a curious refrain:
All my ex-boyfriends are you
That's why I guard every door you meow to get through
Now that all my ex-boyfriends are you.
How does this fit into the broader cycle? Honestly, I'm not sure. But it's a touching song on its own, and it reminded me of how much Virtute has helped me throughout my own life. And I don't even like cats!