The Double Cross

(Yep Rock; 2011)

By Conrad Amenta | 24 May 2011

First things first—watch this promotion video for Sloan’s cheekily-titled The Double Cross, their tenth album in twenty years:

It’s a fair question: how many bands are still going after two decades? And now that that’s asked, a more important question, I think, is how is this band still somehow garnering our attention while so set in both their ways and their self-praise? They no longer evoke that charming sub-genre for whom “Beatles-esque” is only a starting point, but instead those figures for whom diversion or exploration constitute some dilution of a primordially “true” music—which is to say, rock music, and specifically, Sloan’s rock music. They’re so comfortable talking about the importance of their own body of work while simultaneously so curmudgeonly and unenthusiastic about changing the way they do things that they’ve become a kind of contradiction: is it Sloan who are relevant, or the rock music at which they so faithfully saw away? These types almost never enjoy longevity. But Sloan are that absolutely unique mix of arrogance, braggadocio, and popularity made possible by having once been a very big band in a very small country.

That their ten album covers feature no more and no less than iconic representations of the band members should be all of the indication we need that Sloan’s subject matter is and ever remains Sloan itself. This makes sense on some level: like the rock ’n’ roll they play, the band is a nonsensical, self-legitimizing thing, equal parts silly and stylish, their own point of reference. It’s this kind of testament to the self that seems to render each band member totally disinterested in shaking up their siloed formula. Their inconsistency, they explain, is part of the “Sloan sound.” So the achievement of still being a band will echo into the feedback loop; Sloan is important because they’ve been important for so long. Minority opinions about the stagnancy of their music ping off as if from the invincible hull of a Burton Cummings summer tour.

In the ’90s Sloan were a major part of Canadian alternative music, for a time on Geffen and twinned, a little bit, with the rising star of bands like Weezer, whose similarly flippant take on rock standards found traction after so much grunge angst. Sloan’s arc is also almost inseparable from television channel Much Music’s—similarly homespun and miniature in relation to its American counterpart. In the ’90s, Much fomented a sort of Canadian alternative renaissance that, like in the US, eventually turned into aggressive, bullshitty rap-rock. But once upon a time, Much was home to shows that served as a launch pad for bands like Sloan, like the independently-themed show The Wedge (which was recently revived and is now hosted by Fucked Up frontman Damian Abraham). Appropriately, Chris Murphy from Sloan hosted the show last week, and he took the camera crew to Toronto sites deemed important in Sloan’s exhaustively self-recorded history—the Palais Royale, the Drake, Sonic Boom Records. It was a strangely disconnected episode, wherein Murphy all but admitted he didn’t like the videos he was playing (an admittedly strange assortment of major label electronic music) and joked about his band in a sincerely funny way that still did nothing to hide just where he believes Sloan fits in the context of Canadian music. These years later, Sloan has little hope of the airtime they once owned in seeming perpetuity around the time “The Good in Everyone” came out. It was a telling show, and a little bit heartbreaking.

Okay, so it needs to be said: Sloan means something to a lot of Canadians, me included. But what this retrospective forces us to ask is not whether their albums are still occasionally nice to listen to (which, sure) but whether or not they are Important to Canadian Music. There’s little denying the success the band enjoyed at the height of their influence. Twice Removed (1994), and particularly One Chord to Another (1996) and Navy Blues (1998), were omnipresent. Also undeniable is the impact those albums had on people my age—teenagers at the time, for whom Sloan represented a credible, literate substitute for I Mother Earth, Age of Electric, Our Lady Peace, or (shudder) the Tea Party.

But the band’s arc sloped downward into the 2000s because they seemed to subscribe, in greater and greater degrees, to the notion that legacy renders content untouchable. The video for “She Says What She Means” placed tongue-not-so-firmly-in-cheek when referencing the band’s relevance, blowing air up the ass of rock icons while still enjoying being just that, but in an utterly transparent gesture they then offered music videos for every single track on Between the Bridges (1999) just a year later, and a double live album that subsequently bombed. Songs turned sludgy and overlong, lyrics accusatory and cliché, and formulas stagnant. The last ten years of the band’s oeuvre have not, despite Chris Murphy’s many claims to the contrary, yielded an essential album or single, though the general quality has remained consistent throughout. Which is to say, the band is now a solid 65%—worth checking out, but not anything to fall in love with. What Sloan reveal themselves to be the poorest at all these twenty years later—be it via track lists or interviews—is self-editing.

The problem remains that each band member is responsible for their own songs, and so where a messy dialogue might lead to some kind of challenge to the status quo, we instead know exactly what to expect. Jay Ferguson writes beautiful, delicate ’70s pop tributes (“The Answer Was You” and “Green Gardens, Cold Montreal”), predictable but unassailably informed by all the right records. Patrick Pentland writes cringe-worthy rock songs (“Unkind” and especially “It’s Plain to See”), all meat-handed power-chords and crotchety, cliché A-A-B-B lyrics like ‘“don’t-come-around-knockin’-at-my-door.” Andrew Scott noodles around claustrophobically (“She’s Slowing Down Again”), sounding about as cynical about the whole process as he does in the video above. And for all of his bluster, Murphy is still the unofficial center of the band. His bass performances are rich and varied (“Follow the Leader”), his vocals inventive and believably performed (“Your Daddy Will Do”), and his lyrics the closest this band gets to poetic license (“Shadow of Love” is especially poignant and honest, like “The Other Man” in theme, if not in style). I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Ferguson needs to make a solo record, and Murphy just needs to finally take over Sloan and keep Pentland as far away from the mic as possible.

The Double Cross should be a celebration, a tribute to the not-insignificant act of making a living at music for two-plus decades, and it sort of is. “Sort of” in the sense that it reaffirms the band as is, is a portrait of four musicians celebrating their existence rather than the question of self. I find myself suggesting that some humility would do more for Sloan’s music than praise ever could. That doesn’t seem to be something they’re interested in. And so, with this milestone, I offer Sloan my last analysis: I think it’s time for both of us to move on.