That this album is excellent pleases me no end.
See, I’ve loved Slim Cessna’s Auto Club since I first saw them at Ottawa BluesFest almost 15 years ago. They’ve been one of my favourite bands that whole time, a delightful mix of country, gospel and rock with a theatrical, gothic flavour and lyrics that tell funny, surreal stories. Not only are the Auto Club one of the best bands I’ve ever seen live, but their albums are of the highest quality. That is, they were until their last one, Unentitled (2011). Unentitled is fine, but uninspired, “A Smashing Indictment of Character” excepted. It feels like a blend of old elements that’d worked before melted down and hammered into familiar shapes. I feared the well had gone dry, and five years passed without a new album.
In 2015, SCAC released a compilation of new versions of old songs called SCAC 102: An Introduction for Young and Old Europe (“102” presumably because “SCAC 101” is a song on their album Cipher). SCAC 102 revealed a new sound for the Auto Club: less raucous and less bright, now warmer, sparer and darker. I’ll add, parenthetically, that some of the versions on this compilation are canonical, replacing their album counterparts. This release is great, but also looks backwards. It didn’t reveal the quality of what the Auto Club would release the next year.
The Commandments According to SCAC picks up this new sound and pushes it forward with a collection of songs, all written by Munly, that’s solid from front to back. There’s a sense of joy and comfort that flows throughout, which was evident to me even before I read an interview with Slim where he says about the album, “I think it’s actually more cheerful than anything we’ve done before, even musically. I think of the word ‘joy.’ It’s a joyful celebration of what we do.” Where does that joy come from, asks the interviewer. “That we’re still doing it and having a kick-ass time.”
Slim has always sounded like he’s having more fun singing than you’ll ever have doing anything, but on Commandments, he sounds relaxed, happy. Munly is less over-the-top; there’s no “Jesus Is in My Body – My Body Has Let Me Down” style apocalyptic belting. The lyrics are as intelligent, playful and obscure as they’ve always been.
The songs are simply titled “Commandment 1,” “Commandment 2,” and so on, even though they have nothing to do with the Ten Commandments. “Commandment 1” is a strange take on the struggle between Creator and created told from the perspective of a scarecrow-like figure. “Commandment 6” is from the perspective of a horse being forced to jump off a diving board like in an old circus. “Commandment 8” takes up the classic Auto Club trope — as in “That Fierce Cow Is Common Sense in a Country Dress” — of telling a story from the perspective of someone whose ambitions are both sky-high and shabby. The refrain is “Give me what I want!” What does the thief want? “I want motel art on my wall!”
But the standout track is the finale: “Commandment 10.” It begins and ends as a subdued gospel held together by a lovely riff on the banjo. The refrain is sung in unison like a congregation: “You give with your right hand / You take with your left / Submerge me in the water / Try to hold my breath.” Slim, sounding like a preacher in a hammock, sings about something (I can’t understand the lyrics very well). From this quiet start, the song builds to a dramatic crescendo like a chase in a Western, with Slim distantly wailing and Rebecca Vera yelping, while Dwight does his howling feedback thing. Then it returns to stillness and the congregation. The album dies away.
The Commandments According to SCAC is one of the best albums of 2016.