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Sloan: The View From Here
GUEST POST: Mary E. Donnelly (Journal Excerpt)
We’re excited to share an exclusive excerpt from Remember The Lightning: A Guitar Pop Journal: Mary E. Donnelly’s exploration of Sloan from the perspective of an adult fan. Mary is a talented writer whose thoughtful approach to the legendary Canadian power pop band is truly unique. The excerpt below is only the intro to ‘Sloan: The View From Here’; the full essay thoroughly assesses each of their last four studio albums as well.
When you come to a band late, as I did with Sloan, you receive their whole catalog in one fell swoop. It’s intimidating, but also a joy to have a good solid project to dig into.
There is so, so much to learn. Their huge output—32 years, 13 studio albums, two live albums, a plethora of B-sides and EPs and alternative versions scattered everywhere, not to mention side projects and hidden gems—was daunting, but I approached it as a challenge.
I’m a literary scholar by training, and I reasoned that this was no different than trying to track the career of a poet whose work had stretched over decades and eras and cultural contexts: Yeats, say.
“And yet I know, as you look at pictures of your partner in an old photo album, that they are not really those people anymore. Young Sloan was never my Sloan. As magical as they were, they’re not the Sloan I came to love.”
There’s just something special about artists that manage to survive a single cultural moment, and that it’s not impossible to find an in, figure out the timeline, and get into the fascinating business of learning this admittedly complex body of work.
But with appropriate humility, because with Sloan we're not dealing with a singular artist, but rather with four all-original members, a Commonwealth (the title of their 11th studio album) whose borders expand and contract, but never quite collapse, inward or outward.
Born out of the fertile indie scene in Halifax, Nova Scotia in the early ‘90s, there was some kind of alchemical process at work with Sloan, right from the very beginning.
When the low drone of guitars introduces the self-deprecating sneer of Chris Murphy’s “Underwhelmed” for the first time—“She was underwhelmed, if that’s a word/ I know it’s not, ‘cause I looked it up...”—something special is clearly happening.
And then come the guitars, with Jay Ferguson, Patrick Pentland, and Murphy building together; rising, rising, through the rest of the first verse, until Andrew Scott comes in and pulls the percussive pattern together with an explosive drum fill.
You’d think there couldn’t be a more perfect example of early-‘90’s alt-pop. But when Pentland’s voice slides in on top of Murphy’s, the whole magic trick lifts to a new level, grabbing you right behind the navel and taking you with it.
“Indeed, as members of Sloan slipped into grownup relationships, parenthood, divorce, and the slog of just keeping going, their music spoke to me more. What does it mean to still be out of step as an adult? To negotiate watching people you love go through their own crises? And what the hell do you tell your kids about the Tooth Fairy?”
I’ve listened to the song a hundred times, in every iteration I can find, and that moment, never, ever fails. It’s glorious.
And they were just getting started. From where I stand, more than thirty years on, that moment retains all its considerable power, and yet, seen from this distance, it’s strangely pure and, well, innocent.
They are young (and so pretty). Onstage and in videos, they roll all over each other, drape themselves on each other, hold each other up. It’s visceral, physical. I love it, unironically and unreservedly.
I will be honest: I didn’t think I could fall in love like this again.
And yet I know, as you look at pictures of your partner in an old photo album, that they are not really those people anymore. Young Sloan was never my Sloan. As magical as they were, they’re not the Sloan I came to love.
My Sloan were adults, and their world was my world, with all the complexities of adult life and relationships. When I was first feeling my way around Sloan World, I recall gushing about them on social media, and providing as an example the 2001 hit, “The Other Man.”
A friend teased me: “Oh,” he said, “that’s mature Sloan.” And yeah, I guess so. Who among us cannot identify with Murphy’s wry observation, “we’ve all been in one situation or another we regret”? But even that was a solid two decades ago.
Indeed, as members of Sloan slipped into grownup relationships, parenthood, divorce, and the slog of just keeping going, their music spoke to me more. What does it mean to still be out of step as an adult? To parent when you yourself are skeptical of the system? To negotiate watching people you love go through their own crises? And what the hell do you tell your kids about the Tooth Fairy?
Some will dismissively call these songs “dad rock.” I reject that as a term of rejection.
The major theme of rock, for the last 70 years, has been love. As a theme, that has some pretty strict limitations.
But as many people find as they mature and settle into long-term relationships, there’s a whole new way to love: the relationships with your kids—both watching them suffer through the stages of growing up, and then as they become real people in their own right—are some of the most intense, fraught interactions you have. And isn’t relationship crisis really the lyrical engine of rock?
Those are love songs, too.
I have a soft spot, I admit, for the Sloan of the last decade, so that’s what I’ll be unpacking here. I’ll take as my starting point 2011’s The Double Cross, reflect on the not-exactly-a-double-album Commonwealth from 2014, and the largely upbeat 2018 offering known simply as 12, then bring us up through 2022’s Steady.
This is the music of grownups, but it’s lost none of its rock urgency…
Support Indie Music Publishing!
This new semi-annual music journal features some of today's best music writers and the most talented musicians. Volume 1 contributors include:
James Goodson (of Dazy) on Being Power Pop-Adjacent
Annie Zaleski on the Beths
Mo Troper on Chris Bell's "I Am The Cosmos"
Rob Nesbitt (of the Suitesixteen) on the Exploding Hearts
S.W. Lauden on the Whiffs
Mary E. Donnelly on Sloan
John M. Borack on Juniper
Paul Myers on Tinted Windows
Mike Randle on Popsicko's Off to a Bad Start Reissue
David Laing on Power Pop's Country Roots
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Like Mary E. Donnelly’s Writing As Much As I Do?!
Check out the 2014 biography she co-wrote with Moira McCormick about the legendary Illinois power pop band Shoes!