Sloan is without doubt the most truly democratic group in the annals of rock, with Jay Ferguson, Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, and Andrew Scott all contributing original compositions to each record, equal partners with equal say over every aspect of their work. Commonwealth – their first all-new release in three years – sees the Toronto-based quartet disassociating ever so slightly to create one of the more unique and ambitious recordings of their two-decade-plus career, an old-school double album with each member staking out a single side as their own artistic dominion.
"I think that perhaps we are one of the few bands that could make an LP like this," says Ferguson. "Everyone could probably make their own solo LP if they wanted."
"Name another," says Murphy. "The only act that comes to mind with equally recognizable/regarded members who all write and are capable of taking the lead vocals would have been the Beastie Boys but alas…"
Concept-driven works are nothing new to Sloan. Over the course of 10 albums and more than 30 singles – not to mention multiple EPs, hits and rarities collections, live albums and official bootlegs released, like all the band's work, on their own independent label, Murderecords – the band has tackled countless creative conceits from hardcore punk 7-inches to kaleidoscopic song cycles like 2006's 30-track Yep Roc debut, Never Hear The End Of It.
"We're always trying to do something a little different from what we've done in the past," Pentland says. "This can be as much to challenge ourselves or just stave off boredom. With four strong writers, it was inevitable that we would eventually do something like this."
"It would be pointless to make just another 12 or 13 song Sloan record at this point," Scott says. "I personally don't find this to be too far outside of the box for us, just a slightly different approach."
Indeed, the only arguable difference between Commonwealth and the preceding Sloan oeuvre is down to sequencing. Classic collections like 1999's Between The Bridges blended each songwriter's work over the span of the album, their cohesion and continuity provided by all four members' mastery of big melodies and power hooks, cheeky charm and tearjerking introspection, rich harmonies and idiosyncratic personality.
"For the most part everyone has been left to their own when contributing to a record," says Pentland, "with no real ‘rules' to adhere to. That was the case this time as well, except instead of then having to put the different writer's contributions into a sequence that made sense after the fact, we each just got our own side."
The plan to record a solo-sided double was first hatched at a February 2013 band meeting, with all members optimistically agreeing upon a June target date. The sessions – produced by Sloan and Ryan Haslett at the band's Sloan Studio in Toronto – ultimately wrapped in January the following year, a protracted gestation Scott attributes to "a combination of availability, determination, readiness, willingness, intentionality, hoping, wanting, doubting, fearing, needing, waffling, trying, failing, restarting, assembling, writing, and eventually deciding and trusting."
Designated by the four French playing card suits, Commonwealth's four solo sides allow for Sloan's work to at last be heard through a prism of individual identity. Ferguson's thematically intertwined "Diamond" side showcases his remarkable knack for symphonic pop, defined by the tender and trippy "Three Sisters." Pentland's "Shamrock" is loud, fast, and lean, the pedal-hoppin' psych rock of "What's Inside" marked by "noise, ambient keys, and a general sense of the unwell." Murphy – the album's Zelig, the only member to appear on each of his three bandmates' sides – offers up exuberant tracks like "Carried Away," his "Heart" fit to burst with wit, jangle, and eclectic energy.As if the four-tiered concept weren't challenge enough, Commonwealth finishes with "Forty Eight Portraits," an ingenious 18-minute pop suite – replete with string section and children's choir – that encompasses the entirely of Scott's closing "Spade" side.
Ultimately, what makes Commonwealth so special – and so distinctly Sloan – is how the disjointed approach manages to underscore the veteran band's extraordinary strengths, setting off the particular ingredients without ever losing sight of the sum of their parts. While Murphy insists that there is no "group identity beyond including songs from the same four guys every time," Ferguson argues that the essence of Sloan can always be found in their trademark vocal accord.
"No matter how disparate sounding our songs can sound at times, the one thing that balances and forces unity is the harmonies on each others' songs," he says. "The music can seem unrelated but I think the singing and harmonies unifies our records."
Sloan will celebrate Commonwealth with a long overdue US tour, slated to get underway in the fall. For all their talk of separate real estate, Sloan remains very much a rock ‘n' roll band, exemplified every time the members team on the concert stage.
"The true group identity plays out on a stage playing as a band performing in front of an audience," Scott says. "Recording is so controlled. We just do it how we do it and then we become a true band again after the fact."
Commonwealth follows 2011's The Double Cross, which earned Sloan some of the most glowing notices of their acclaimed career. Pitchfork summed it up best: "20 years in, they've made one of their best albums…That (Sloan) sound this creatively fresh this deep into their career is a real treat for people who've stuck with them through the years. If you've never given them a chance before, this is a great time to get to know them."
Having been at it for almost a quarter century, Sloan still has a few aspirations in the collective hopper. Pentland is keen to revisit the band's seminal works via deluxe reissue and tour (a la 2012's epic celebration of their landmark Twice Removed), while Ferguson would like to bang out "a real live off-the-floor rocking Sloan LP in our own studio, just quickly learn and record a song each day." For his part, Murphy has a very specific target in mind.
"Andrew's decision to make his side into one giant song meant that Sloan would remain shy of 200 released songs," he says. "By my count, we are at 197. I'd like to record at least one more song each so we can crack 200."
"I think – or hope – that there is a collective drive to continue to make great records and to leave some important work behind for others to hear and appreciate (or not)," says Scott. "As long as there is still gas in the tank it is our duty to see this through and continue to contribute some good to this world."