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187058-four-of-a-kind-a-breakdown-of-sloans-commonwealth

Four of a Kind: A Breakdown of Sloan’s ‘Commonwealth’

Sloan's jaw-dropping double album Commonwealth strikes a perfect synergy between the band's identity and the collective identities of its members.
Sloan
Commonwealth
Yep Roc
2014-09-09

Over a year ago, rumor had it that Sloan’s next release would see the four members going solo and releasing the material under the Sloan name. For a band that has enough pressure to maintain the overall high quality of its career output every time it makes an album, taking this route would surely be a high-risk venture: historically, it had never been pulled off with success.

In 1978, the four members of KISS released four solo albums on the same day, all under the KISS moniker. Like The Beatles, KISS had two guys who wrote most of the songs, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley; one guy who wrote fewer songs, Ace Frehley; and one guy who really couldn’t write songs, but wrote one or two anyway, Peter Criss. But the Beatles never even split these songwriting duties equally on any one album, much less on four full-length solo ones.

The KISS solo albums ended up a financial disaster, selling only one fifth of the total albums that were shipped. They were also critically incongruous—Stanley’s and Frehley’s were seen as continuations of the hard-rock KISS sound, Simmons’s was seen as musically diverse, Criss’s was seen as a 12” Frisbee. In the end, none of them were considered bona fide classics. But the reason they really failed is because four full-length LPs, whether they’re written by four great songwriters or 1978 KISS, was and will always be too much music for anyone to digest at once.

But Sloan (who, as it so happens, is a big fan of KISS) knew two things before setting out to make its version. First, if any band is capable of doing the “four solo albums under one band name” thing successfully, it is Sloan, as it had been making its albums like this, except shuffling the songs up, for its whole career. Second, the group wasn’t going to repeat KISS’s mistake of releasing four full-length solo LPs. No, Sloan was instead going to utilize the double LP format (with which it already had success) to echo the solo nature of the 1978 KISS albums. In other words, Sloan would release a double album where each member would get an entire side of vinyl for his songs.

This was all officially confirmed in July of 2014, when Sloan issued the press release and cover art for their 11th studio LP, the solo-sided double album, aptly titled Commonwealth.

The album cover alone was enough to whet the appetite. As opposed to the usual Sloan album sleeve of a picture of the band, plus a color scheme, this one featured a detail-oriented collage of items, like a more-aesthetically organized page from an I Spy book. We see various photos, a receipt, a 7” record, an unfinished crossword puzzle, dice, shark teeth, pins, and a locket, all meticulously strewn about. Fanned out on top of this backdrop at the focal point are the members of Sloan, depicted as the four kings in a set of playing cards: Jay as the King of Diamonds, Chris as the King of Hearts, Patrick as the King of Shamrocks, and Andrew as the King of Spades. The finishing touch is the purple pin right above the cards, which displays the band’s name and the album’s title in a formal script typeface. The whole thing looks magnificent.

But this characterization actually serves a purpose beyond mere novelty: by assigning each member a different card suit, Sloan devised a unique interactive sequencing experience. If you buy Commonwealth in its intended format of vinyl, you will notice that there is no Side 1-4 or Side A-D, but rather four sides labeled by the four suits assigned to each member on the cover. The order in which you choose to listen to the four sides is the intended order of listening, which may be a first in double-LP history. The diamond, the heart, the shamrock, and the spade are like Sloan’s version of the Led Zeppelin IV symbols, or Prince’s Love Symbol, except these serve a practical purpose. That said, most will probably listen to it in the order that the single-CD offers, which is alphabetically by last name. But as luck would have it, this alphabetical sequence actually ends up working the best—with Jay’s under-two-minute-long band fight song “We’ve Come This Far” to kick things off, and Andrew’s majestic 17-minute long suite, “Forty-Eight Portraits”, as the closing act, you will be hard-pressed to figure out a more enjoyable listening order.

Diamond Side: With a full side of vinyl each to curate, the guys in Sloan were awarded the rare opportunity to run wild for longer than the length of one song and choose exactly how they wanted their contributions to line up next to one another. On his Diamond side, Jay Ferguson chose to make a miniature-scale album, a compact suite of tracks bleeding into one another, with a distinct opening song, closing song and centerpiece song, not to mention an unofficial reprise and a variety of vintage styles. Simply put, it’s the finest work Jay has ever contributed to a Sloan album. And by listening to Commonwealth’s sides in last name alphabetical order, you’ll hear Ferguson’s side first, a distinction that acts as a nice feather in his patrol cap, as he was the only remaining member in Sloan to have never received the opening slot on an album. For that reason alone, his Diamond side should always be the first one you listen to.

But a better reason would be how well his side’s opening track works as an opener to the whole album. “We’ve Come This Far” serves as a mission statement for the long history of Sloan, as well as a justification for releasing an album like this. With just three self-referential verses (“Keeping track of our own text / Are we charmed or are we vexed? Does history or vanity decide?”), and a dirty Lennon-esque guitar solo, “We’ve Come This Far” is over after 1:23, seamlessly transitioning into track two, the sunny-side-up “You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind”.

With its soft musical bedding, bright harmonies, and immediate sing-along nature, “You’ve Got A Lot on Your Mind” sounds like the best song Wings never released, even humorously nodding to Sir Paul with the refrain “P.S. I like you”. This is only further authenticated by Chris Murphy’s ever-adventurous bass playing, which is the unsung hero of every Sloan song. Unlike KISS’s solo ventures, you can hear each member of Sloan lending his talent in some way on almost every track—musically, vocally, influentially—regardless of who penned it.

After the last chorus of “You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind” takes a bow, the show carries on with the elegant piano drama of “Three Sisters”. Sounding like a black-tie casino version of George Harrison’s Beatle swan song, “Something” (that’s three Beatles Jay has emulated in just three songs), “Three Sisters” acts not only as the focal point of Jay’s side, but also as the focal point of his entire songwriting career so far. Lyrically, it’s one of his best—the expertly-crafted double entendre of the line “She played a diamond where her heart should be” is classic. Muusically, the track blows down the doors, thanks to Andrew Scott’s deceptively simple drumming, Murphy’s high-register low-end, and a ripping guitar solo out of left field. A song like this takes Sloan’s already high-standing as a band and lifts it up another step, away from everyone else.

“Cleopatra”, one of Jay’s fastest songs yet, finds him showing off his admiration for the gritty music released on Stiff Records, while still retaining the sweetness of his Beach Boy-influenced melodic sensibility. The song is already good enough when, out of nowhere, Jay stealthily drops a reprise of “You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind” before the last verse.

The Diamond side closes with “Neither Here Nor There”, a gorgeously lush acoustic ditty on new love, clocking in at just over two minutes. After Jay’s side, you feel like you’ve experienced a perfect full-length album, even though it was only five songs. And with the last line ringing in your head, the last word of which is “heart”, you gear up for what can only be a spectacular side of the same name by Sloan’s most consistently-skilled songwriter, Chris Murphy.

Heart Side: With time on his side, Murphy wastes none of it: the instantly catchy and instantly rocking “Carried Away”, opens his set. This is one of several songs in Murphy’s back catalog with a distinctly “Go Your Own Way” flavor to it, and it might be the best of them. Lyrically, it tells an engaging story about an open relationship gone awry, acting as a sequel to Sloan’s 2001 Murphy-penned classic, “The Other Man”, which chronicled his struggle of getting involved with a taken woman. In one interpretation of its lyrics, “Carried Away” depicts Murphy going on to finally win her love, agreeing to an open relationship with her, then getting served a plate of poetic justice when she sleeps with another guy and develops feelings for him. An alternate reading of its lyrics puts the listener in the same setting as “The Other Man”, but instead of hearing from Murphy’s side of the love triangle, we hear from the perspective of the original male character, who loses his woman after Murphy—who initially came along as a friend of hers—turned into her new romantic partner, thanks to the nature of her open relationship. Or, you could isolate the lyrics entirely from the narrative of “The Other Man”. Whichever interpretation you go with will make for a lyrically satisfying listen. But even if the lyrics were about something else entirely, the song would still flourish because of its melodic peaks, rhythmic dropouts, and not least of all, the production, which blends acoustic and electric guitars, bass, electric piano, drums, and strings in a way that sounds perfectly streamlined and not cluttered.

The next tune brings down the pace but not the quality—“So Far So Good” is another piano-driven ode to the complexities of life by Murphy, having done so before on Never Hear the End of It’s “Live the Life You’re Dreaming Of”. But this time around, he wraps the ballad in barbed wire instead of a bow. Both musically and lyrically, “So Far So Good” sounds like the result of “Hey Jude” cross-pollinating with “Sexy Sadie”. “Better get on with it / You know who I’m talking to”, sings Murphy, “Changing this world’s up to you”. Translation: the movement you need is on your shoulder, so take a sad song and make it better; if not, you’ll get yours yet, however big you think you are. Throughout the cut, Murphy provides a particularly strong vocal, belting it out during the second section, and then sticking the landing on return to the first. The song concludes with a cosmic outro, featuring the band singing wordless, bubble-like church bell vocals that float away and quickly burst into thin air.

A sustained organ note smoothly transitions “So Far So Good” into the shortest song on Murphy’s side, “Get Out”, a sinister shuffle with another brilliant vocal, this time featuring a prominent Jay Ferguson on backup. The bass riffs are rapturous, as are those of the lead guitar. And “Get Out” is just one of the many songs on Commonwealth enhanced by the piano prowess of Gregory Macdonald, who returns to lend a hand with musical bits, as well as helping the band and sound whiz Ryan Haslett with the album’s production. On its back cover, a continuation of the collage on the front, Macdonald appears as the deck’s Joker, but he really should have been pictured as a Jack: he is truly Sloan’s Jack of all musical trades.

“Misty’s Beside Herself” comes next, and acts as a softer break between harder-edged songs, though its chorus still manages to rock pretty hard thanks to a chunky rhythm anchored by Andrew Scott’s authoritative drumming. The song’s breakdown, wherein everything drops out except the piano and Murphy’s single-tracked chorus vocal, is an especially nice touch, a zag where lesser bands would zig.

The last song on the Chris Murphy side, “You Don’t Need Excuses to Be Good”, easily slides into the top ten of his career. The lyrics tell the story of a boy who has lofty dreams—presumably those of athletic, theatrical, or musical stardom—talking to a cynical woman who believes they are impractical for the “real” world. When she decides to bluntly verbalize this opinion to the boy, he understandably bursts into tears. Murphy, once a kid with big dreams of his own, swoops in and urges the boy to keep his curiosity and work hard towards his dreams instead of just wishing they’ll come true. He then calls on our culture to ditch the woman’s condescending attitude and adopt a more supportive one like his: if you’re good at something, you shouldn’t have to curb it for anyone. It’s a really considerate message by Murphy, who, not coincidentally, has two boys of his own.

But what good are good lyrics without great music? “You Don’t Need Excuses to Be Good” just happens to rock harder than past Murphy heavies like “Underwhelmed” or “She Says What She Means”, yet has more finesse than either, showcasing a Rush/Police-influenced verse and a walloping glam-rock chorus. But just when you think that it’s time to head back to the verses, Murphy flips the script entirely and segues into a zealous foot-stomping call-and-response Revolver-esque tornado of hooks for an even more exciting second chorus. After another round of verses and choruses, Murphy ends the song with a ferocious guitar solo a la McCartney’s on “Taxman”, finishing off the Heart side with pizazz.

Shamrock Side and Spade Side

Shamrock Side: If Sloan’s sweet Beatle brew was never your cup of tea, look no further: Patrick Pentland’s Shamrock side plays like a mug of extra-bitter dark coffee (no sugar).

“13 (Under a Bad Sign)” is a straight-forward punk exercise and sounds like an ominous version of Devo, for better or for worse. The next song, “Take It Easy”, just sounds like an extension of the former track, but with harmonies and a carpe diem message. These similar-sounding songs don’t do anything to lift the album, but thankfully they’re short enough to not bring it down too much. At minimum, they conjure up the spirit of the Bowery.

Next up is “What’s Inside”, a spacey slow-motion cross between the Jesus and Mary Chain and ‘90s trip-hop that reels you in with its hypnotic swirl and industrial beat. It might be the least Sloan-sounding Sloan track ever, but it works on some level. It’s interesting to hear the band taken out of their comfort zone for several gloomy, kaleidoscopic minutes.

The final track on the Shamrock side is the dice-tumbling lead single “Keep Swinging (Downtown)”. It rocks and it rolls all the way back to the early ‘70s and is the most upbeat and classic of Patrick’s four offerings, with a bunch of hootin’ and hollerin’ and “yeah yeah yeah” backup vocals. It’s another strong example of Gregory Macdonald’s talent, as he maintains a steady piano rhythm while throwing in little stylophone accents to keep things interesting. “Keep Swinging (Downtown)” is an overall fun, carefree ode to rock and roll. As a bonus, a minute or so of pleasant, mostly instrumental cruising is tacked on to the song’s tail end, with some lovely melodic acoustic guitar and piano interplay up front in the mix.

While Pentland’s side is good, it could have greatly benefitted from a dose of melody—something he used to provide on a regular basis. Also taking away from Patrick’s side is his singing voice, which is decidedly more monotone this time around. But maybe all of it—the songs’ styles, the lack of melody, his singing—is one big deliberate reactionary punk and metal statement from the punk and metal-loving Patrick against either his own comparatively poppy singles of yesteryear or the consciously put-together sides of the other three members. And if this is the case, then he gets credit, not just for rocking Sloan’s boat for 11-plus minutes, but for embracing the music of his soul.

Spade Side: Back in 2011, when Sloan was promoting The Double Cross, they released a series of short videos for each one of that album’s songs, featuring the given song’s author dishing out a couple minutes of commentary about the writing and recording process of it. In the video for Andrew Scott’s “Traces”, he says something quite revealing: “I was kinda scrambling when we were supposed to be really producing stuff [for The Double Cross] so I kinda had to just make something up fast.” Similarly, for his only other contribution to the album, “She’s Slowing Down Again”, Scott admitted that he was forced to complete its writing because the band was running out of time to finish.

Luckily “She’s Slowing Down Again” turned out to be a great Sloan song in spite of its “due the night before” nature. But Scott couldn’t get away with the same thing on “Traces”, which sounds exactly like he described: made up fast. The song is almost five minutes of the same beat and the same chord while Scott sing-speaks like Bob Dylan throughout. It’s tiring.

With that in mind, the news that Andrew’s Spade side of Commonwealth would consist of a single 17-minute song meant one of two things: It would either be the greatest, most ambitious piece of music he ever wrote, or it would be another spontaneous jam like “Traces”, except almost four times as long. The mystery of what this uncharacteristically long song would entail made it the most highly-anticipated of the four sides. So did Andrew deliver?

The answer is a resounding yes, screamed from the top of a mountain. The song, titled “Forty-Eight Portraits”, is otherworldly in its layered grandeur. While 17 minutes and 49 seconds seems like a long time for one song, it’s actually not in this case. Like Jay’s Diamond side, Andrew’s Spade side plays like a miniature album, specifically a concept album or rock opera in the sonic vein of Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by the Kinks. To take a full rock opera’s worth of concepts, sections, segues, style changes, and leitmotifs, and distill it down to just less than 20 minutes is nothing short of remarkable. For Commonwealth, Andrew not only did his homework; he completed the extra-credit assignment, too.

“Forty-Eight Portaits” starts off with an experimental overture of dogs barking over a free jazz piano-bass duet and a Stomp-like beat of tambourines, muffled hand drums, wood blocks, and brass pipes, sounding like a wild rumpus version of Scott’s eerie “A Side Wins” piano outro, from One Chord to Another. After about three minutes of this, a tremolo-laden guitar chord swells up like a wave and crashes, to usher in the band.

With acoustic guitar, piano, and a hybrid beat of the overture’s street drumming and Sloan’s standard rock drumming driving the song forward, the first vocals arrive: Scott and Murphy in chant-like two-part harmony, singing about unity and faith, in ambiguous terms. This triumphant tribal opening section—we’ll call it Section 1— is sucker-punched out about a minute into it, immediately locking into a slower new section (Section 2) sung by Murphy and Scott alternating between lead vocal and harmony duties. This section sounds like “With a Little Help from My Friends” if it was designed to play as background music in the interrogation scene of a noir film. Part of this feeling can be attributed to its lyrics about consequences and regret: “Don’t ask for a second chance / It’s too late for that / We can make a small amendment to your sensitive side / But you’ll have to pass the hat”; “Decide whose side you’re playing upon / While you’re defusing the bomb”; “Limping from the field, you never logged your valentines / And who’s to blame for that?”

Section 3 picks up the pace again, as a refrain of questions is sung by the pair: “How does it feel when you’re motionless and can’t perform? / What does it mean when the world you’ve left can’t be reformed?” These questioning verses are then capped off by a musical interlude of electric piano with a stinging guitar lead on top.

The suite dies down for a hot second before a red-hot lo-fi guitar-led backdrop is brought in for Scott to let out his fiery Dylan-ish fury for a few verses—complete with the repeated use of the phrase “There’s something happening here”—in Section 4. On past Sloan albums, Scott’s Dylan-evoking style has overstayed its welcome, sounding fine for a minute or so before losing focus; here, it acts as a perfect down-to-earth break from the built-up magnificence of the other sections before heading right back into them. The last line in this section (“The big stars in your eyes won’t deliver any light”) cleverly throws to Section 5, which, because of that preceding line and its harmony-drenched, glowing acoustic nature, has to be an homage to several songs on Big Star’s landmark debut, #1 Record. This doesn’t last longer than 30 seconds before the even shorter Section 6 reprises a few bars from 1999’s Between the Bridges highlight, “Delivering Maybes”, a nice treat for longtime Sloan devotees.

Section 7 slows the tempo down again to allow for a brief country rock-tinged verse about deceit before leading to a “Carry That Weight”-style refrain (Section 8)—“What it does is unexplainable / What it is is unsustainable”. The commanding string section used here is the perfect complement to such a climactic rock chorus; it would doubtlessly get George Martin’s seal of approval. The song then returns to Section 7 for another verse, containing one of the best lyrics on the album: “I couldn’t tell that you were always so lonesome / You never typed it on your cellular phone”. This is met with another round of Section 8’s soaring exclamation.

An abrupt section change halts the excitement, but it reintroduces a familiar melody from the beginning in the form of a breakdown—we’ll call this Section 1a. This is then slowed down even more to make way for a powerful soliloquy delivered by Murphy to the tune of Section 2—we’ll call this Section 2a. “I asked for a proper glass / half-full is fine”, cries the King of Hearts. “But if you really need it perfect have it carved in some stone / We’re running out of time”.

The song builds itself back up to Section 3a, a rocking cha-cha version of Section 3 with more questions asked by Murphy and Scott. Maybe Murphy wrote parts of “Forty-Eight Portraits” and as a result, got to sing so much on it (he makes more “guest appearances” here than any other member makes on the entire album); or, maybe Scott just likes the way his voice sounds and wanted to feature it on his side. If the latter is the case, it’s hard to argue with his taste—Murphy’s voice on Section 3a and Sections 2 and 2a (not to mention all of his Heart side), out-nasals Lennon and Costello and sounds better than it ever has. Considering Murphy has maintained one of rock’s most elite singing voices for 23 years, this is saying a lot.

There’s plenty more song left to go. Section 9 finds Andrew existentially vulnerable as the drums drop out and he sings “Sometimes I feel like I’m slipping away” in a cloud of distant reverb. Meanwhile, a multi-tracked Murphy sings some barbershop-y background vocals to lift Scott’s spirits. And it works; the section rises to confidence with a jubilee of horns that gives way to a rejuvenated and aggressive uptempo version, Section 9a.

The song then comes to another standstill as Section 7a sidles up to the foreground with a pretty guitar lick emerging over the waning horns of the last section. But unlike its twangy predecessor section, all that’s left is now is a Velvet Underground-ish soundscape of tambourine and subdued guitars over which Scott asks “And how much love is left to give?” answering his own question with “Ten thousand tonnes or more would be my guess”. That brings in section 10, a two-line refrain sung by a children’s choir (featuring both Scott and Murphy’s kids): “And we’re saying a prayer for you / If we can understand it, why can’t you?” Scott furthers their question in a reiteration of Section 7a, “If happiness lies deep inside us / why do most deny it for themselves?” The kids of Section 10 return to sing their refrain twice, separated by a quick guitar solo barked out by Scott over a bed of strings. Then Scott takes the mic one last time (Back to Section 7a again) to ask himself, “If there’s a tunnel that I can’t see through / W.W.L.R.D.?”—L.R, which likely stands for Lou Reed, a noted influence on Andrew’s musical intuition.

After this line is uttered, the band goes into a huge mesmerizing wrap-up outro, reminiscent of the one on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, officially putting the final stroke on the last of the “Forty-Eight Portraits”.

Yeah, this is a lot to take in the first time you hear it. But repeated listens reveal that with “Forty-Eight Portraits”, Andrew Scott and Sloan constructed something bigger than any one of their usual songs: a musical mansion with a hundred rooms. Just live in it for a little—you’ll see that it’s really an incredibly-designed piece of architecture. Some have said that the song lacks entry points and is impenetrable, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Forty-Eight Portraits” is one of Scott’s most inclusive pieces; because of its multiple breakdowns and shift changes, you most certainly can enter it at different points. But why would you want to when listening to it in its entirety and memorizing its melodic ins and outs is such a rewarding musical experience?

* * *

Commonwealth is four vinyl sides of confirmation that Sloan gets better and better with age. It shows one member experimenting with the expectations of the band’s sound, two continuing their unbeatable streak of pop masterpieces, and another advancing the band into larger-than-life territory. The arrangements are superb, the melodies, the playing, the album art, the heavy-duty double vinyl jacket—it’s all just a near-flawless offering from a near-flawless band, one who had the audacity to release a second double album, separate it into four mini albums by each member, and somehow have it sound as unified and harmonious as their usual four-songwriter blend. If you’re a band and you’re accomplishing something that the Beatles never even attempted, then it’s safe to say you’re doing something right. And Sloan didn’t just accomplish it; it downright mastered it in a way that no other band in this world could even dream of. With Commonwealth, Sloan has added a precious and priceless jewel to its already lustrously decorated crown.

* * *

In a recent interview, Gene Simmons claimed that rock and roll didn’t just die; it was murdered. He then issued the following challenge to the interviewer, who happened to be his own son, Nick: “…from ’84 until today, name some [classic, timeless, revolutionary artists]. Just give me a few—artists that, even after their passing, are or will be inescapable. Artists on the same level as [Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the numerous classic Motown artists, Madonna, U2, Prince, Pink Floyd]. Even if you don’t like them, they will be impossible to avoid, or deny, even after they’ve stopped making music and maybe passed on. In fact, they become bigger when they stop. Name artists that even compare with the ones I just named.”

When Nick answers with “Nirvana?” Gene replies: “Nirvana. That’s about it. They are the notable exception. Keep thinking. It’s harder, isn’t it, to name artists with as much confidence? The pickings are so slim, and it’s not an arbitrary difference. There was a 10 to fifteen year period in the ’60s and ’70s that gave birth to almost every artist we now call ‘iconic’ or ‘classic’. If you know anything about what makes longevity, about what makes something an everlasting icon, it’s hard to find after that. The craft is gone, and that is what technology, in part, has brought us. What is the next Dark Side of the Moon? Now that the record industry barely exists, they wouldn’t have a chance to make something like that.”

It’s tragic that a band like Sloan has existed since 1991, and, in its 23rd year as a band, released a double album that trumps Dark Side of the Moon in every single way, yet Gene Simmons and his son both agree that the short lived (though highly influential) Nirvana are the only classic, timeless, and revolutionary artist since 1984.

In one sense, it’s like a joke that those in the know can laugh about, as we pity the ignorant masses, like the Simmons men, who have failed to recognize a band whose discography is vast in its size and even greater in quality. A band that matters. A band you need to hear. A band you will never stop listening to. A band called Sloan.

This is part three of a three-part retrospective on the work of Sloan.

Aaron Pinto is a senior writer at Manik Music and an avid enthusiast of pop music. The two Bs inform his entire worldview: the Beatles and the Beach Boys. He can’t stand Pink Floyd or Radiohead. To quote Steven Van Zandt, “To have impact in two minutes and thirty seconds—that’s very hard to do. It’s much easier to write Pink Floyd’s The Wall than it is to write ‘Louie Louie’”. Word.

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