By PAUL ZOLLO
I shouldn’t be surprised that his new album is a masterpiece. After all, this is a man who has created masterpieces many times over in his remarkable career. But when I first heard that P.F. Sloan had been working for years on a song cycle about Beethoven, it struck me as perhaps a quirky obsession that wouldn’t lead to great singable songs, the kind he’s famously written for years, but to something else.
In fact, this is very much something else. And it is remarkable and very great. He’s created a brand new masterpiece: an orchestral love-letter to music, and to the troubled geniuses who aim daily for eternity, towards masterpieces. But living your life for eternity, while still needing to tend to earthly details, becomes a superhuman challenge, and it’s one that Sloan seems to understand well.
P.F. Sloan, a musical prodigy who was famously misunderstood by his own family and then by the music industry itself, clearly has a powerful connection with Beethoven. But rather than minimize the greatness of the maestro, he’s created a symphonic song cycle of much power and range which does justice to its subject. It’s a masterpiece built on the music, and the life, of this man who made masterpieces. It celebrates music, and its cost to humans who create it so fully, and are ultimately transformed by their own creations.
In addition to being known as a great songwriter, Sloan is famous as a guitarist who can devise a perfect guitar riff, whether it’s the intro to “California Dreamin’,” which he played, or the great arch riff of “Secret Agent Man,” also his. Yet here he’s on a Bosendorfer grand piano, and with rich pianistic revelry throughout . And rather than a rhythm section of bass and drums, we have full orchestra on almost every song, scored beautifully and conducted by the artist himself. This is a complex, yet fully realized, vision.
The result is remarkable. Epic, intricate, quite amazing songs – each echoing with much love the emotional dynamics of Beethoven , from sonorous serenity to clashing, dissonant fury – and also the famous harmonies and melodies. The title song “My Beethoven (Canto)” borrows moments from “Fur Elise” and other famous Beethoven compositions, woven with devotion into the whole. And the wonderful “The Joy of the Ninth” brings wondrous new words to the famous melody of Beethoven’s final masterpiece, which remains one of the most beautiful and beloved tunes of all time.
That the maestro would end his career – his lifelong opus – with voices singing what is essentially a song in the midst of this grand symphony – and a tunefully diatonic melody, almost a folk song – is evidence of his understanding that simple songs touch the human heart like no others. Of course it’s a song wrapped in music great and grandiose. But just as Sloan has learned over these decades how a single song with a compelling melody can impact people profoundly year after year, so did Beethoven embrace this understanding.
Sloan was invariably compared with Dylan when he was young – and it was fair, as he loved Dylan and wrote songs, like “Eve of Destruction,” that were inspired by Dylan’s unchained expression. In the same way, Beethoven loved, and was compared always, to Mozart, even considered a Mozart wanna-be. So the parallels abound. Yet rather than obscure the work, this connection enriches it – Sloan clearly is close to the subject. Close to the pure sumptuous beauty of his symphonic instrumental music – songs without words – and to the aim towards the divine, towards perfection that is superhuman – and the potential agony involved in the attempt.
Like each of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, this is work of great ambition. It’s about the pain of being human – imperfect – yet conscious of the great joy and beauty even humans could create. It’s all there in “The Joy of the Ninth,” when he explains that humans must work hard – beyond hard – to approach music that reflects the divine: “I never asked for the lord’s help and he never asked for mine.”
This is audacious stuff. It’s a work of much majesty. Unafraid, awesome, troubled and beautiful and full of genius, like Beethoven, and almost overwhelming it its reach. Nobody but P.F. Sloan could have created this. It’s taken me a long time to be able to write about this, because I didn’t know where to start or end, like reviewing Hamlet. Some things cannot be capsulized into simple language, and this is one. It’s beyond words. Give it a listen, and you’ll know what I mean.
It’s an auspicious and momentous moment for this album to emerge, as Sloan – who for decades mysteriously disappeared from our midst – has also recently published his long-awaited memoirs, What’s Exactly The Matter With Me? (Jawbone Press), written with S.E. Feinberg. It’s a remarkable book, and one that sheds a lot of light into the mysteries of his remarkable life. (A full review of this book is forthcoming in Bluerailroad.) So it’s a good time for my fellow P.F.Sloan fans, many who have educated me on the greatness of this man for years. A new album, and a book. If you were looking for a reason to rejoice, look no more! P.F. Sloan is back.