On their new double album, Commonwealth (their 11th), each band member’s songwriting takes up a full side/suite. Sloan had talked about doing Kiss-esque solo records from each member for years, but wondered if fans would put in the time to listen to each one. However, putting all the solo-written material on one double album instead of four separate ones made it easier for the band to finish and will make it easier for listeners to digest. At least that’s what the band hopes. “Maybe people won’t like it this way, say it sucks,” said bassist and de facto leader Chris Murphy. “And the next one will be back to how we usually do it.”
It is slightly jarring, as a huge Sloan geek, to listen to Commonwealth for the first time. I’m used to hearing the four songwriters’ voices one right after the other (as opposed to segregated into separate sides): a Jay Ferguson song (guitar; lots of ballads; the sensitive one), then a Murphy song (bass; drums; the funny one), then a Patrick Pentland song (guitar; riffs; usually writes the singles), then an Andrew Scott song (drums; guitar; the complex one). And that’s the order of the sides here, chosen “alphabetically because we couldn’t decide,” said Murphy.
“We’ve Come This Far,” the solo Lennon-esque stomper that opens the album, acts as a mission statement for the band, now in its 23rd year. The song is a somber look at a mid-level lifer band’s career, as Ferguson sings, “Are we charmed or are we vexed? Does history or vanity decide?” This leads into “You’ve Got A Lot On Your Mind,” probably the best song here (how was it not the lead single?) and one of the few Sloan tunes you can actually dance to. Then Ferguson’s acoustic song (because he always has an acoustic song) “Neither Here Nor There” is also quite lovely and closes out his side.
Murphy’s songs tend to be the bridge between everyone else’s sounds: he can do light FM pop like Ferguson, pysch-rock like Scott, or head-bangers like Pentland, but here he settles into songs that are undeniably his own: witty lyricism, many structural twists and turns, and a chugging, mid-tempo feel. His side is probably the album’s most solid, punch for punch, although none of his songs stand out quite like past numbers including “Take It Upon Yourself” or “She Says What She Means.”
Over the past few years, Pentland has become Sloan’s weak link, and here he turns in the album’s dud—the slow, plodding, electronic “What’s Inside”—but then follows it with a total jammer in the single, “Keep Swinging (Downtown).” “Patrick always gets the singles,” Murphy said. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
Next, Scott’s side is one very long suite, entitled “Forty-Eight Portraits.” He tends to have the least amount of songs per album, so it is somewhat of a bummer that he only has one here, especially since it opens with two and a half minutes of “Revolution 9”-esque ambience and later quotes an older Sloan song (the classic “Delivering Maybes”). However the suite as a whole is still pretty awesome, so maybe I’m just being greedy for more Scott.
This is not Sloan’s best album. While there are some great songs, it is, ultimately, a little bit of a letdown. That said, what other bands are still doing crazy ambitious things like this on their 11th record? Plus, I’m probably holding them to impossibly high standards because I love them way too much. It wouldn’t be the first time. Just listen to Sloan already.
– Layne Montgomery