Everybody loves a good debut album.
For instance, many of my friends are going nuts over a band called Lo Moon, whose debut album dropped a few weeks ago. It’s a fine little 49 minutes, drawing from several influences I love, like Talk Talk and Peter Gabriel. The lyrics are often at a Chris Martin level, but they don’t detract too much. It’s a good record, and I am interested to see where this band heads next.
Yeah, everybody loves a good debut album. But I find myself more interested in bands and artists who have been at their thing for a while, plying their trade for years or even decades, building up a body of work. That’s how you can take the measure of an artist, to me: if their catalog tells a story, and that story ends up being worth hearing. As the saying goes, you have your whole life to write your first album, and only a couple months to write your second. I imagine it gets exponentially more difficult to make your 12th album interesting.
Oddly enough, I have a pair of 12th albums to discuss this week. In both of these cases I’ve been following the bands since their inception, and often marveling at the ways they have found to keep innovating throughout their long careers. After a dozen albums, though, the tricks are usually all out on the table. For instance, there are really only a few kinds of Eels songs – snarling rockers, sad ballad-fests and groove experiments. There’s some overlap sometimes, but those are the three modes Mark Oliver Everett writes in, and 12 albums in, he’s not changing.
Lately he’s been giving us albums that focus on one kind of these songs, like the recent trilogy of Hombre Lobo, End Timesand Tomorrow Morning. The previous Eels record, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, was more of a sad-sack piece, and there are really only a couple directions Everett likes to go after those. So for The Deconstruction, we get an existential meditation in song, an album akin to Everett’s early triumphs. Only not quite as good.
The Deconstructionsplits the difference between more electronic, beat-driven numbers and sparse, slow rambles. Neither style hides too many surprises anymore, but they can both still be affecting. Early highlight “Bone Dry” rumbles by on its big drums, sounding like a second cousin to tunes like “Flyswatter,” and I can’t help smiling at repetitive lunkhead happy-dance number “Today Is the Day.” Meanwhile, you know exactly how a song like “Premonition” or “Sweet Scorched Earth” will go as soon as it starts, but Everett’s earnest croak still works.
But this album still ends up feeling more tired than I wish it did. Everett tries his best, trying these songs together with interludes that call back to one another and working to weave a story out of them, but the songs themselves are weaker than he’s been in a while. I like the simple lyrics of “Be Hurt,” but find the turgid music off-putting. I’ve heard Everett do the shimmy-blues of “You Are the Shining Light” so many times at this point that what should be an exciting moment late in the record just treads water. “There I Said It” might be the prettiest thing here, and is no doubt a deeply felt piece of work, but it sounds like every other Everett piano ballad. By the end of this record Everett has found love again, and I’ve heard him chronicle this cycle from despair to hope more than once.
I don’t want to suggest that The Deconstructionis bad, or that it doesn’t work. In fact, I don’t know why Everett’s whole thing works as well as it does, given his rudimentary lyrics, pedestrian voice and simple song construction. And yet, I love what he does. I like The Deconstruction in spite of itself, as it tries and fails to be better Eels albums, and I find myself swept up by the time the sweet “In Our Cathedral” ends. After more than 20 years at this, Everett ought to be surprising me (and, frankly, himself) a lot more than he does here, but I’m still susceptible to his inexplicable charms.
The same can be said for Nova Scotia’s own Sloan, a band I never expected to hit 12 albums. It took them four years longer than Eels to do it, but here we are. I’ve followed the ups and downs of this one-of-a-kind quartet since high school, moving with them through their ‘60s phase, their early ‘70s phase and their late ‘70s phase, listening as they slowly transformed into a classic power pop band. They’ve changed so much since their shoegazing early days, and that’s down to the myriad influences of the four members, all of whom write songs and sing them. Sloan is a true democracy, which has so far kept their work from slipping into pastiche or boredom.
That said, there are good Sloan albums and there are great Sloan albums. Last time out, they delivered a great one. 2014’s Commonwealth divided its four sides up between the band members, giving each a chance to shine over an extended suite, and the results were revelatory. It was a bit of a gimmick, but after a couple of nondescript platters, Commonwealthshook things up.
The just-released 12, on the other hand, is a good Sloan album. Each of the Sloaners gets three songs, and if you know what each one usually turns out, you won’t be bowled over by any of these tunes. Chris Murphy gives us the energetic guitar-pop he’s known for, particularly on opener “Spin Our Wheels” and late-album highlight “Wish Upon a Satellite.” Patrick Pentland is all about the rock, as always, and he delivers the biggest surprise: a thick return to the Smeared guitar sound on “The Day Will Be Mine.”
Jay Ferguson, meanwhile, turns in his eminently likeable, breezy pop, strumming an acoustic on “Right to Roam” and pounding a piano on the delightful, Kinks-esque “Essential Services.” And Andrew Scott gifts us with three more of his cerebral, scrappy standouts. I like “Gone for Good,” which meanders about on a space-y bass line and some lush harmonies, but I love “Year Zero,” his dirty, tricky guitar anthem. I remain impressed at this band’s ability to play on each other’s songs, retain each writer’s core identity (to the point where you can tell almost immediately who penned what), and still come together to create a Sloan sound.
There’s nothing at all wrong with 12. It contains no bad songs, no filler, no embarrassing moments. It’s the sound of a long-running band just doing what they do, and doing it well. That said, there’s nothing amazing about it either, and after a dozen albums, there are enough amazing ones to compare something like this to. This one is about the same quality as The Double Cross, or Action Pact. Those are really good records, so that’s nothing to scoff at.
And maybe sometimes, the secret to keeping things interesting after more than 25 years is just to keep on doing it. At various points during their career, I have been convinced that I would never hear a new Sloan album again, that I’d just listened to the last one. And each time they’ve proved me wrong. I hope Sloan goes on forever, making good albums like this one and occasionally punctuating them with great albums. I’ll be here, listening for as long as I am able.
Next week, the unlikely pairing of Wye Oak and Derek Smalls, probably. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.