Sloan changes things by giving each member a side of a double-vinyl record. It works.
Let’s not bury the lede here. Commonwealth is Sloan’s 11th studio album, and for the first time since the abstract sketch-style cover of their 1993 debut, Smeared, the band has created an album cover that isn’t simply a variation on a photograph of the four members. Sure, their faces still appear prominently on the cover, as the four kings on playing cards, but there’s a lot more to the album artwork than just the guys in the band. It’s a welcome departure for Sloan, and while the music contained on the album isn’t nearly as much of a departure, it does find them attempting something different this time around.
Not that Sloan really needed to change it up. They’ve been playing top-notch ‘60s and ‘70s-inspired power-pop and rock for over 20 years now, and their last album, 2011’s The Double Cross, was possibly their best record since the ‘90s. Commonwealth finds them doing more of the same, but the conceit of this 60-minute-long, double-vinyl album is that each of the four band members gets an entire side to themselves. Since each member of Sloan has always contributed as a songwriter and singer, this isn’t such a radical move as, say, each of the members of KISS putting out a solo album on the same day in 1978. But it is the first time one of their records has been strictly divided by songwriter.
This tactic was likely inspired by the ambition of drummer Andrew Scott, who has always leaned more towards psychedelia and Led Zeppelin-esque grand rock gestures than the rest of the band. Scott’s side closes out Commonwealth, and it’s a single track that clocks in at just a touch under 18 minutes. Predictably for a guy who’s never tried this sort of thing before, "Forty-Eight Portraits" is a big mess. That doesn’t mean it’s unlistenable, just that it sounds more like six or seven song ideas all shoved together into one sprawling, loosely arranged piece.
The track opens with three minutes of abstract music, featuring a dog barking, a background percussion loop, and a lot of slow piano, guitar, and bass that don’t line up rhythmically with the percussion or each other. There are hints here and there of music to come later on, but mostly it’s just a chore to get through. Once the song proper kicks it at the three-minute mark, things improve markedly. Scott’s first pair of song ideas are catchy, going from muscular rock to wistful power ballad and back, with the power ballad leaning heavily on the wispy, high-pitched vocals of Jay Ferguson. The third section resembles some of Scott’s weaker songs by featuring his aggravating speak-singing style. It’s torpedoed entirely when Scott directly quotes a handful of lines from the Sloan classic "Delivering Maybes", right down to the backing vocal harmonies, and those 15 seconds are better than the entire rest of that section of the song. From here, the track rambles through a few more ideas, including a string-backed piano ballad, a middling mid-tempo rock section, and a bouncy, horn-backed Beatles-style pop song that Scott cuts off way too early to slide into the down-tempo, four-minute conclusion. This conclusion features a lot of slow guitar soloing and a children’s choir, and the lyrics finish with Scott saying, "WWLRD?" After some pondering of this question, I’ve decided that Lou Reed would absolutely put together a messy 18-minute track and wouldn’t care what anybody thought about it. So good on you, Mr. Scott, for following your muse, and well done, Sloan, for deciding to put it at the very end of the album.
The other three sides of the album don’t feature any major departures for the band. What they do include, though, are at least couple of strong songs from each of the three songwriters. Ferguson kicks things off with the uncharacteristically dark and brooding "We’ve Come This Far", which he only manages to keep going for 85 seconds before transitioning smoothly into the bright and poppy "You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind". The latter features ‘70s-style harmonies in the chorus and a similarly catchy bridge the instruments mostly drop out and the harmonies take center stage. The slow and melancholy "Three Sisters" is a nice change of pace before the uptempo "Cleopatra" kicks in afterwards. The acoustic "Neither Here Nor There" finishes out Ferguson’s side on a pleasant, quiet note.
Ferguson, it turns out, set the example for his fellow bandmates Chris Murphy and Patrick Pentland, who also each try to fit an album’s worth of sequencing into only a handful of songs. In the card suit theme of the record, Murphy is assigned Hearts, which is entirely appropriate, as his songs always seem to have the most emotional resonance and sympathetic characters amongst the band. "Carried Away" is a typically sympathetic portrait of a woman who cheated from the point of view of the husband, and could almost be the flipped perspective of the character from the Murph classic, "The Other Man". This slides into the languid piano ballad, "So Far So Good", which features the excellent couplet, "Don’t be surprised when we elect another liar / Did you learn nothing from five seasons of The Wire?" (A Mayor Rob Ford reference from the Toronto-based band? Possibly.) Another highlight from the Murphy side is "Misty’s Beside Herself", a typically sensitive story song about a shy, lonely girl who finds herself in a relationship.
With Scott off working on his epic mess and Ferguson and Murphy both favoring piano-based songwriting this time out, Pentland finds himself carrying the torch for the time when Sloan was mostly a two guitar band. His first two tracks leave the piano on the sidelines and find Ferguson strapping on his guitar for a change. "13 (Under a Bad Sign)" and "Take It Easy" are technically different songs, but both share the same hard-edged guitar tones and driving drums and are only separated by about eight seconds of feedback. Unfortunately, his other two songs, "What’s Inside" and "Keep Swinging (Downtown)" leave something to be desired. The former gets lost in a swirling morass of guitars and reverb-laden vocals, while the latter is a bar band workout that lacks the band’s usual vocal hooks.
Commonwealth is a welcome left turn after the excellence of The Double Cross. It may have been folly to try to duplicate the creative success of that record with another just like it, so Sloan tried something else. The closest antecedent here is 2005’s Never Hear the End of It, which had a similarly (mild) experimental bent. There, the entire band contributed to a nonstop 30-song suite, while here each member pretty much creates their own suite. While this isn’t a huge step away from what the band has always done, it’s enough of one to keep it interesting for the band members and their listeners.