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.
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.