After 27 Years, Sloan Is Still Just Sloan
Less ambitious than their previous album, Sloan's 12 gets back to basics with mixed results.
6 April 2018
The last time Sloan did a back-to-basics album, 2008's Parallel Play, the results were... just fine. That album followed up 2005's ambitious 30-song suite Never Hear the End of It, and Parallel Play's scaling back to "normal" was a bit deflating. I bring that pair of albums up because their new release, simply called 12 (it is indeed their 12th record), also follows a more ambitious record. 2014's Commonwealth found each band member doing his own set of songs and closed with drummer Andrew Scott's 18-minute epic "Forty-Eight Portraits". 12 contains 12 songs, with three contributions from each member, and it's… just fine.
I didn't personally find either Never Hear the End of It or Commonwealth to be among the long-running Canadian rock band's best work, but it was nice to hear the band try to change things up. Their classic rock-inspired material has always had strong songwriting and great hooks but trying something different after 14 and 23 years as a band, respectively, is a good way to keep things fresh. Maybe hearing Sloan settle back into their more typical mode isn't particularly inspiring.
There are some very good songs here, but there are also a few that aren't particularly memorable. Opener "Spin Our Wheels" (Intentionally ironic title? Probably), is a strong, muscular power pop track from guitarist Patrick Pentland. It's upbeat with a simple, catchy guitar riff and a really fine melody. It also features great two and three-part harmony vocals in both the pre-chorus and refrain. Bassist Chris Murphy is up next, and "All of the Voices" is one of those forgettable songs. Murph generally has the stickiest earworms in the band, but the chorus here is average, and after the opening few lines the verses make no impact whatsoever. Jay Ferguson's "Right to Roam" has a nice jangle-pop guitar riff but other than effectively echoing the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young there's little else to the song.
Andrew Scott turns up fourth with a typically laid-back song, "Gone for Good". It has several different guitars noodling around over a loose rhythm section prominently featuring a shaker and improvisational bass work from Murphy. Like most of Scott's material from about 2005 onward, it sounds significantly different from the songs the other three band members are writing. It has a nice atmosphere, and it's a good change of pace, but it doesn't have any hook to it.
For those keeping track, that's one quite good song and three average ones over 12's first third. Fortunately, that ratio improves as the album goes on. Pentland's "The Day Will Be Mine" is crunchy with a good chorus and a nice guitar solo, and his last track, "Have Faith", builds nicely to another strong chorus. But neither is quite as good as "Spin Our Wheels". Ferguson's lightly shuffling "Essential Services" is about bureaucracy and how much society depends on them, and the lyrical change of pace is welcome, as is the piano-based music. Ferguson also contributes the airy "The Lion's Share", which emphasizes his tenor vocals with a melody smack-dab in the sweetest-sounding part of his vocal range.
Murph returns with "Don't Stop (If It Feels Good Do It)", which cheekily references his 2001 single "If It Feels Good Do It", and it's pretty good. The piano and the acoustic guitar-backed refrain is nice, as is the post-chorus instrumental break with a syncopated bass line. It doesn't live up to its previous hard-rocking namesake, though. On the other hand, his "Wish Upon a Satellite", is an inspired sing-along. Its lyric "I wish upon a satellite / The stars don't seem to care" is slightly cheesy, but this is the type of insistently catchy song that Murphy has done throughout Sloan's career, and the bit where he briefly hands off the lead vocals to Pentland mid-song is a simple but very effective tactic.
Scott's "Year Zero" finds him in a more upbeat mode than usual, using the rest of the band to layer in vocal harmonies throughout the song. The lead guitar and bass have great interplay during what serves as a mostly instrumental chorus, and Scott gets in some great drum fills here and there as well. He's back in a low gear for the album closer "44 Teenagers." The track is a bit of a ramble, but it includes a striking lyrical passage where Scott reflects on the death of Gord Downie. Downie was the frontman of Sloan's fellow Canadian rock mainstays the Tragically Hip who passed away in October of 2017 after a battle with the insidious brain cancer known as glioblastoma. While superficially similar to "Gone for Good", "44 Teenagers" has a lot more focus and it also features a tempo change near the end of the song. This speed increase allows the album to fade out with an uptempo guitar jam, which offsets the melancholy of the Downie passage from earlier in the track.
Sloan has been too good for too long to put out an outright clunker, and 12 is definitely not a clunker. But because their output has been so strong over the decades, even a solid album like this comes across as a slight disappointment. That's not especially fair, but Sloan is one of those bands where the bar is set high. So even though this album probably will fall somewhere outside the band's top five, 12 is listenable and good, and it has some genuine standout songs.