By Eleni P. Austin
“If you wait a while, we’ll never go out of style, then we’ll be back in style, but if you lose your thread, we’re never hard to find.” That’s Sloan mulling new their place in the Rock & Roll firmament on “Dream It All Over Again,” from their brand-spankin’ new record, Steady. Sloan has been serving up impeccably crafted Power Pop confections for more than 30 years. The Halifax, Nova Scotia four-piece features Jay Ferguson (guitar, vocals), Chris Murphy (bass), Patrick Pentland (guitar, vocals) and Andrew Scott (drums). They formed in 1991 and began releasing music via the Canadian indie label, murderecords. Soon enough, they signed with Geffen Records (home to Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Guns N’ Roses) and their first official long-player, Smeared, arrived in late 1992.
In the ensuing years, they’ve released 12 studio albums, four EPs and five live collections. Feted on their home turf, they have consistently balanced critical acclaim with commercial success. Among the top 25 best-selling bands in Canada, they’ve received nine Juno nominations (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys), winning two. Although they haven’t reached the same level of popularity in the lower 48, they’ve cultivated a loyal and passionate fanbase. Splitting songwriting and vocal chores evenly, the four-piece has maintained the same line-up since their inception, a remarkable feat.
When the Covid 19 pandemic hit, the band was touring in support of the reissue of their 1998 opus, Navy Blues (which had been repackaged as a vinyl box set). Forced off the road, they opted to create a new album from scratch. Writing and recording remotely proved challenging, but ultimately, allowed Sloan to experiment a little bit with their tried-and-true sound. The result is their 13th long-player, Steady.
The record opens with the one-two punch of “Magical Thinking” and “Spend The Day.” The opener is awash with fuzz-crusted guitars, vroom-y bass lines, rapid-fire handclaps and a chunka-chunk beat that hugs the melody’s hairpin turns. Lyrics insist a heady mix of pragmatism and mystic intervention helps to maintain a sense of equilibrium; “Messages from the other side, feelings that won’t be denied, believing in it all along, I think it and I can’t be wrong, unrelated, yet connects, supernatural effects, It has meaning to me.” Elastic keys ping-pong between verses, adding to the song’s hooky sangfroid.
“Spend…” is powered by descending piano chords, downstroke riff-age, tripwire bass, an urgent tambourine shake and a rattle-trap beat. The tightly wound instrumentation and arrangement literally pulses and twitches, even as lyrics advocate for a mental health day; “It’s not like living in your real world is better than my life on the other side, I’m sick of wired and I’m tethering and weathering somewhere out of my mind/Hide away, spend the day in here, with me awhile, hide away, spend the day in here with me awhile.” A face melt-y guitar solo on the break leaves no room for equivocation.
Three tracks find Sloan wearing their influences on their sleeves. If The Beach Boys, The Zombies and Todd Rundgren had ever collaborated, it might sound something like “Close Encounters.” Sun-dappled acoustic notes are matched by meandering keys, nimble bass and a heartbreak beat. Honeyed harmonies cascade atop the halcyon arrangement. Trenchant lyrics speak to the conflicting feelings of malaise, enmity and suspicion that crept up during Covid; “These times are insane, so many never getting away with it, I’m wearing my mask a second summer drawing to a close…It’s so depressingly sad, how held hostage we are to the WiFi bars and all the gas in our cars.” Of course, there’s no perfect panacea but that’s no reason to turn our collective backs on humanity; “….I bet you’re wondering are all the best times behind you, or are they soon to remind you, the sky’s going out, so love your brothers and sisters the same, I’m wearing my mask, another changer posted, modern world game.”
“Human Nature” takes a page from The Beatles’ mid ‘60s playbook. A graceful, McCartney-esque melody is anchored by brittle piano chords, shimmery guitars, agile bass lines and a kick-drum shuffle. Lyrics lean in a Lennon direction, pivoting between scabrous social satire; “I don’t want to know the latest salacious family news, honestly, I hate it, but it can keep me amused,” and a tart treatise that comments on our constant need to feel like the center of the universe; “You know the office chatter tends not to flatter and it’s a shame, although it’s beneath them, you’ll greet your teeth when you hear your name…/You listen as they converse and steel yourself for the worst, but no one mentioned you at all, and LOL your world was shattered, you did not matter among your peers.”
Meanwhile, “She Put Up With What She Put Down” sounds like the best Raspberries song you’ve never heard. Stacked harmonies lattice atop wily electric guitars, Jangle-Pop acoustic notes, chromatic keys, thrumming bass and a crushed velvet beat. A lithe and indelible melody wraps around a nuanced narrative that charts the course of an ambitious woman quietly taking aim at the patriarchy; “Traffic and lights, setting her sights she always knew some aim to be great, but they just illustrate that history’s often unkind/Writing her thoughts as she stares out to the highway will anyone read or review? Cool ocean air, she’s pushes into the driveway, the ceiling is cracked, but she’s leaning out the window, out of the window.” Equal parts moody and effervescent, the final guitar outro simply crackles with restless energy.
Sloan has made a career of deftly straddling the line between Post-Punk, New Wave and Power Pop, that tradition plays out on several tracks. Take the aforementioned “Dream It All Over Again.” Scratchy, spitfire guitars, angular bass and staccato handclaps are wed to a jittery backbeat. Lyrics oscillate between sticking with the familiar and exploring uncharted territory; “You end up looking farther afield, in hindsight it kept its appeal, so we’re here and now, what’cha going to do if they call your name out? The changing of the guard is a trend and curtain calls will come to an end, do I take my bow? What’cha going to do if they call your name out.” Strafing guitars crest atop the caffeinated break, while the future remains uncertain, it’s still a rollicking good ride.
The action slows on “Simply Leaving.” An authoritative drum break, that seems to pay sideways homage to Hal Blaine’s iconic “Be My Baby” kick, is quickly supplanted by willowy guitars, thready bass, plangent keys and a thunking beat. Lyrics offer a mordant meditation on love and loss; “I think I finally broke in November, maybe December, I don’t remember, it was late in a year that was full of hate… now everybody’s coming home tonight, to celebrate you and your life, but I prefer to grieve in a way in a way that we’d both believe/And I don’t know what time it died, but I’m pretty sure my state of mind, I won’t crack, except we all know I’m gonna crack.” Courtly Spanish guitar coils around the break underscoring the tender ache.
On “Scratch The Surface” scuzzy power chords partner with sinewy bass lines and a pile-driving beat. Lyrics limn the emotional disconnect of life in the city; “When you’re alone in the city no one knows your name. alone in the city, everybody feels the same/You’ve got your peace and love, you’ve got your liquor and drugs, liquor and drugs, peace and love, it feels the same.” A squally guitar solo bulldozes through the break, underscoring the dystopian ennui.
Ringing, Fab Four-flavored arpeggios are matched by tensile bass, and a knockabout beat on Nice Work If You Can Get It. Beatific harmonies can’t camouflage feelings of insecurity and ambivalence; “Showing off’s half the battle, showing up doesn’t pay, showing in those invited, but they can’t stay.” The shout-it-out chorus is bookended by sugary acoustic licks and a final epiphany; “Turning into what I hate, turning water to wine, turning right on a red, turning…. on a dime, turning one more time, turning on my dime.”
Finally, “I Dream Of Sleep” is the album’s true outlier. Twangy guitars, loping bass and shaded keys are tethered to a clip-clop, cowpoke gait. Something of an insomniac’s lament, the lyrics skillfully chronicle futile attempts at counting sheep; “Ceiling looks good, but I’ve seen enough, mind races when my eyes are shut, I dream of sleep, Midnight and I’m wide awake, 1,2, and I’m wide awake, 3,4 and I’m wide awake, 5 o’ clock and I’m wide awake, and all too soon, sun appears, my obligation reach my ears.” Impossibly catchy, the winsome melody, chiming harmonies and feather-light arrangement conspire to keep the listener from hitting the snooze button.
The record closes with “Keep Your Name Alive.” The stripped down, bare-bones arrangement is fueled by ricocheting guitar riffs, boomerang bass lines, clattering piano chords and a whipcrack beat. Slightly cryptic lyrics hint that pursuing your dreams sometimes come at a cost; “If I simply turned around or counted one to five, do you have to leave your home to keep your name alive? Whether you float far away where it got too deep to dive, failing further mention of keep your name alive, keep your name alive.” Buoyant “la-la-la’s” embroider the bridge, before the whole enterprise powers down to a final cymbal crash.
Three decades in, Sloan has managed the neat trick of remaining both fresh and familiar. Even as the four-piece has distilled their myriad influences into a signature sound, they’ve never been afraid to color outside the lines. This record is packed with memorable melodies, erudite lyrics, crisp arrangements and hooks galore. Sure, there’s always something thrilling about discovering new music, but it’s equally mind-blowing when an old favorite can still delight and surprise you. Steady is just that good.