Photo: Calm Elliot-Armstrong

Sloan’s 13th Album ‘Steady’ Is Another Strong One

Steady, the title of Sloan’s 13th album, describes their workhorse approach to music while reassuring fans that they’re still around despite hardships.

Yep Roc
21 October 2022

Sloan have been around since 1991, creating often-brilliant records with a sound grounded in power-pop. As with any career that goes for over 30 years, the band has occasionally tinkered with their style and experimented with genre. Steady, the title of their 13th album, describes their workhorse approach to music while possibly reassuring fans that they’re still around despite hardships.

Of course, the most significant recent hardship has been a global pandemic. Sloan, which for years have mainly stuck to their native Canada for live shows, spent the early months of 2020 on their most extensive US tour in a long time. That tour wrapped up on 8 March 2020, returning home just days before everything, including borders, shut down. The enforced break got the group back in songwriting mode, and the result is possibly Sloan’s best record in over a decade.

The first single, “Spend the Day”, is a big, catchy rocker that goes right for the hooks. It opens with simple but effective guitar chords, pounding piano, and an active bassline while leaving ample room for drum fills. The chorus is an instant sing-along, as guitarist Patrick Pentland belts, “Hide away / Spend the day in here / With me awhile” over a bed of vocal harmonies. The buzzing guitar solo is brief but powerful and serves as the song’s de facto bridge. This is the kind of track that Sloan have been doing for their whole career, and it’s an excellent example of why the formula still works.

On the other hand, the second single, “Scratch the Surface”, also by Pentland, is an uncharacteristically tough track. It’s a gritty rocker with a crunchy guitar tone and an unforgiving viewpoint about the isolating side of life in the big city. “When you’re alone in the city / Everybody feels the same,” begins the pre-chorus. Then it gets downright cynical: “You’ve got your liquor and drugs / You’ve got your peace and love / Liquor and drugs / Peace and love / It feels the same.” They sweeten it up a little bit on the actual chorus with harmony and backing vocals, but a snarling guitar solo brings the grit right back into the song.

Steady also starts at full blast with the driving “Magical Thinking”. An insistently chugging guitar and bass play syncopated notes off the beat throughout the song. A pair of guitar riffs recur here and there, one distorted and chunky and the other high and twinkly. Bassist Chris Murphy, with ample backing vocals from the rest of the band, pokes fun at the credulous. “If it feels right / Accept unblinking / Make it real life / Magical thinking.”

Murphy also fronts a pair of excellent change-of-pace songs. “Human Nature” is a piano-based ballad about his reluctant relationship with gossip. The soaring chorus reflects, “Human nature / Human nature / We want to make sure / That we can figure out / If we get talked about.” Even better is the jangly folk-country of “I Dream of Sleep”. Murphy sings with a touch of melancholy about his insomnia, but the song is so jaunty that it’s impossible not to sing along. It’s nice to hear Sloan successfully get outside of their power-pop wheelhouse.

Speaking of that wheelhouse, drummer Andrew Scott, as always, contributes a pair of songs that make Sloan sound like a completely different band. The other three band members have continued to mine the power-pop vein, but since the mid-2000s, Scott often sounds like he’s fronting a psychedelic blues-rock band with his songs. “Panic on Runnymeade” ambles along on loose drums and a thick, round bass tone. Piano flourishes and blues guitar riffs add to the atmosphere. “Close Encounters” has a similar feel in the bass and drums, but the inclusion of relaxed acoustic guitar gives it a much more easygoing feel. It’s not all pleasantly folky, though. The song cranks it up on the chorus as electric guitar enters, and Scott wearily sings, “I’m wearing my mask / A second summer drawing close to its end.”

Pentland also contributes an outlier of a song in “Simply Leaving”. It’s a slow, acoustic guitar-based track with smatterings of strings. It’s not like Sloan haven’t done their share of ballads over the years, but this one seems particularly specific. He sings of the complicated mess of feelings associated with losing a loved one. It opens with “I think I finally broke in November / Maybe December / I don’t remember,” and later goes on to declare, “I won’t cry / Except that we all know I’m gonna cry.” Musically, the song is just energetic enough to keep it from being a sad dirge. The strings, tasteful guitar solo, and backing vocals near the end give the song small boosts.

The balance of Steady dips into Sloan’s seemingly limitless well of power-pop guitar riffs and vocal hooks. Guitarist Jay Ferguson’s “She Put Up With What She Put Down” is spritely, with its acoustic guitars and active bass continually interrupted by a fabulous, 1960s style electric guitar riff. It also features an excellent bridge that lifts the song as Ferguson’s tenor vocals hit his high range. Ferguson and Murphy trade lines in “Dream It All Over Again” before teaming up with Pentland for excellent three-part harmonies on the chorus. It goes from hook to hook and is an immediate sing-along. “Nice Work If You Can Get It” goes full-on Beatles, with a guitar riff that sounds “Day Tripper”-inspired. Sloan have weathered these comparisons for decades, so it’s nice to hear them just shrug and go all-in with a pastiche.

Steady finishes with Ferguson’s “Keep Your Name Alive”, an upbeat pop-rock track with great layered harmonies on the chorus. The bridge features Ferguson trading “la la la”‘s with spirited guitar licks. Interestingly, Steady went with a song with no note of finality as their closer. Clearly, Sloan will keep doing what they’ve been doing. There’s no need to make a big statement to finish this record.

Nevertheless, Steady stands out for how accomplished it is. There isn’t a bad song or middling track on the album. Each of the four members makes vital songwriting contributions, and their playing and vocal harmonies are as strong as ever. With 12 songs in a brisk 37 minutes, nothing overstays its welcome, and there are enough changes of pace to keep listeners from starting to tune out. It’s impressive that the quartet is still making music this good as they enter their fourth decade of existence.

RATING 7 / 10