Artist: Sleeping at Last
In Brief: Amidst the wide-eyed metaphors, the ukuleles and piano and strings and banjos, you might just find a little of God’s DNA.
“With surgical precision, we’ll cut every piece into order”, sang Sleeping at Last frontman Ryan O’Neal on the band’s previous album, Keep No Score. “And beneath soft faces, we’ll climb halfway to God.” Those words may be over three years old now, but they’ve become an increasingly accurate description of how this band makes music: delicate, precise, almost painstaking in its detailed vulnerability, written and composed with the seeming intent to give listeners a fleeting glimpse of the Divine. Each new album that the band puts out seems to move their sound one step further from the “rock” part of the “indie rock” equation, relying more and more on acoustic sketches and orchestral embellishments, creating what I like to call “musical angel food cake”. It’s not heavy – at times it seems lighter than air itself – but it tastes heavenly with just the right amount of frosting on top.
Storyboards, the second of the band’s albums to be directly distributed online rather than sold in conventional stores through a label, has a pretty good reason for ditching the rock factor almost completely and upping the intimacy quotient. Drummer Chad O’Neal parted ways with the band in late 2008 as this album was coming into being, leaving his brother Ryan and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Dan Perdue to function as a duo. While this didn’t result in a complete lack of percussion on their new record, it did seem to place the focus much more strongly on the acoustic instruments, giving Ryan and Dan more room to let the gentle fingerpicking of guitars, ukuleles, banjos, placid piano chords, and stately strings carry the weight of each song. Think of it as a trade-off – you might no longer get the grand swoop and smash of a song like “Tension & Thrill” or the thundering majesty of “Hold Still”, but if you loved the hushed understatement of “Needle & Thread” or “Quicksand”, you’ll probably get into this one a lot more. And yet Storyboards also brings out the band’s folksier side, never passing as anything resembling twangy (the aforementioned banjos do not immediately whisk you away to some hoedown, nor do the ukuleles conjure up images of hokey tourist luaus), but allowing their up-tempo material to take more of a dusty backroad. It’s the same beautiful portraiture you’ve come to expect from the band, but the bold, heavy paints are now watercolors, the boundary lines between colors a little more blurred. To put it less pretentiously, this is SAL’s mellowest record – and some would say, their prettiest.
But “prettiest”, for a listener used to the more “confectionery pop song” side of the equation, is going to mean that this album will take more time to settle in. That might just be my reaction to every SAL album at first – I’m captivated by the first handful of songs, and when things begin to get more relaxed and intimate, it can blur together for me at first. For sure, a jump directly from their sole major label release Ghosts directly to Storyboards would have been jarring. You can hear the same grasp of universal yearning in Ryan’s poetry, the same fragile cracks in his voice, but the landscape is totally different, since even the softest moments on Ghosts were electric ones. This makes Keep No Score the ideal middle ground between the two, and a good place to start for a new SAL fan. Storyboards is an album to sit still with, to ponder deeply – you can enjoy it on a simple melodic level, but it will probably take the most time out of any of their albums to grow on you (unless you were raised on classical music or something, I suppose). None of this is a criticism. Artistically speaking, each album is a solid piece of work in its own right, and I never seem to fully glimpse why that’s true with one of SAL’s albums until long after I’ve reviewed it. Four-star ratings on either of their previous discs now seem ridiculously shortsighted, and so I can’t help but wonder if I’m being a bit shortsighted with this one as well. It’s uniformly good, but the songs most likely to become SAL classics don’t jump out at me the way a song like the lovelorn “Umbrellas” or the eerie “Dreamlife” did.
Make no mistake, though. “Mellow” doesn’t imply narrower musical parameters or a lack of inventiveness. There’s a subtle boldness at work here, even sometimes a delicate sort of playfulness, that helps to set the right mood for Ryan’s observations about mankind’s attempt to discover the sacred hidden among the mundane. A songwriter can only proclaim what “we all” supposedly do so many times to the tune of rousing rock anthems before he runs the risk of being pretentious. Couple those same sentiments with a more intimate approach, and paradoxically, the universal ambitions behind these metaphors go down a lot easier. That’s a fine line to walk, but these guys sound like they were born knowing how to do it.
I’ve come to expect SAL’s albums to open with a sense of grandeur, and for the band to accomplish this with a fully acoustic approach this time around makes it all the more impressive. The rapid but timid tip-toeing of Ryan’s ukulele is the driving force behind the song, while shuffling drums keep the beat. Piano and strings are brought in later to complete the ensemble, creating a unique arrangement that, like many throughout the album, is difficult to describe in conventional genre terms. Ryan’s lyrics are similarly impressive, taking such a simple premise, “The door broke when you slammed it shut”, and describing those cracks taking on a life of their own, growing up the walls and across the floor, consuming an entire house like fire. It’s a song about breakable things and the risk that comes with loving them. “And like every birth, it was a necessary pain”, he concludes near the end of the song. It’s abstract enough to mean whatever you think you see in it, and yet profound enough to be easily relatable for those with ears to hear.
The image of chandeliers leads me to expect mansions and large rolling lawns and other “stately” images, and the song certainly supports that sort of vision, with its gentle strings and Dan’s rolling triplets on the piano. Even though the song moves along at a fairly quick pace, the light, swaying rhythm and the glistening keyboards give it a fragile feeling, like a crystalline object that reflects brilliant light but that you’re afraid to touch. Ryan’s captivated by dreams and visions in this song, as his gentle voice tells of a “rare bird of grace” that was glimpsed for a split second and which now can only be reconstructed through silhouettes and memories. There’s definitely a sense of having experienced something overwhelmingly beautiful but not being able to pin it down, which once again makes me think back to their song “Hold Still”. That’s one of my favorites, so it reflects well (no pun intended) on “Chandeliers”.
Even within the context of a fairly mellow album, this sparse piano ballad all but slams on the brakes when placed so early in the track listing. (I had the same complaint about “Needle & Thread” on the last album, but then that ended up being one of my favorites, so I kind of forgot that I ever had a problem with its placement.) It’s about as softspoken as this band gets, leaving lots of dark space for contemplative pauses while Ryan briefly dips into what seems at first to be a rather cynical mindset: “Religion is a breeding ground/Where the devil’s work is deeply found/With teeth as sharp as cathedral spires/Slowly sinking in.” It’s a powerful and intriguing way to open a very confessional song in which he admits “God knows that we’ve been naive”, but also realizes there’s a truth beyond our stubborn ability to not see it, a grace and justice that will make these wrongs right again. Other than the piano, there’s only bits and pieces of a string arrangement to support the song, like little bits of hope peeking through amidst all of that negative space. Even so, the song sort of unexpectedly peters out at the end, hanging on a faint note where you’re expecting another thought or two to wrap it up. It’s not the sort of thing that calls for a big finish, I suppose.
4. Side By Side
Gradually bringing the mood back up, this track opens gently with the picking of an acoustic guitar, which is interlaced with the electric guitar and our first taste of the banjo once the song gets going. Even with those instruments in play, the band still takes a delicate approach, using these instruments for color and shading rather than for definitive melodies or riffs that stand out on their own. It’s the intertwining of the elements that creates a subtle beauty. Here the band is attempting to describe a beauty that cannot be described by human language. That probably sounds like a paradox, which is probably the point of the song. Given that, it’s amazing that Ryan still manages to wring something compelling out of it – he uses the ocean as a metaphor for God or whatever fill-in-the-blank transcendent experience you want to put in there, and then describes us as being stuck on a beach with our heads stuck in the sand. Clever stuff; it just takes a few listens to untangle it.
5. Slow & Steady
The ukulele is back up front for the stark beginning of what turns out to be one of the album’s loveliest songs. A slow opening verse suddenly shifts into a light but playful dance in 6/8 time, the strings trembling with anticipation and the percussion almost acting like handclaps to keep the syncopated beat. As all of these ingredients start to mingle together, Ryan muses about the best way to describe the human soul. “Maybe the soul is the soil that holds the fallen seed” and “Maybe the soul is a suitcase that holds the backup plan”, are two of his most intriguing guesses. Each one seems like it could be a portal to several more stanzas worth of poetic musing.
This track will likely be the biggest shock to the system for many listeners, not because the musical elements within it are all that surprising on a Sleeping at Last album, but because of the overwhelmingly big role that the string section plays. SAL has gone fully classical here with the help of arranger Van Dyke Parks, who whips the ensemble up into a twitterpated frenzy, giving the song a quick and yet extremely fluid rhythm that I can never quite get a handle on. it almost sounds like something out of a Disney movie, except that Ryan’s not singing any of that “When you wish upon a star”-type silliness. He’s got the same dreamy-eyed vision as you’d expect from that type of song, but he’s questioning the way that the mechanisms behind the changing of seasons, the cycle of death and rebirth, weighty things like that. It’s an inspired departure from the band’s usual approach (more so than the entire album already is) – even if you’re having trouble with some of the other songs running together in your mind (which I’ll admit I sometimes do despite enjoying them all), you can’t not notice this one.
I’ll admit to getting this one and “Side By Side” mixed up at times. There’s a similar approach to the gentle, mid-tempo approach of plucking the ukulele to provide the primary rhythm and melody of the song. This one just happens to grab my attention a little quicker with another one of Ryan’s patented intriguing metaphors, describing our youthful innocence as a light snowfall and then intimating that our words become devastating avalanches as we grow older. This album is seemingly obsessed with broken and buried things that each undergo a sort of rebirth. And it’s easy to miss the warning here amidst all of the lovely stillness – “In our trembling fear, we put words inside of God’s mouth”. That’s weighty stuff.
So I mentioned at the beginning that this album wasn’t particularly heavy on percussion. That’s true for the most part, but the tumbling drums are a defining factor of this song – a rare up-tempo entry that probably comes as close to “rock” as anything I can think of on this album. That wouldn’t automatically make it a good song just by itself, but once again it’s the way that the ensemble plays together, the piano helping to pound out the rhythm and the string section soaring and diving in all the right places. I love the way this one gallops along, describing the way that “God’s DNA” is revealed when we can look beyond the slivers of slowly passing time that are our own lives and examine the long-term design of the universe. This description reminds me quite a bit of Psalm 19 (“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands”), just spoken in more cryptic language. It’s definitely an album highlight.
9. Birdcage Religion
Putting the album’s fastest and slowest songs back to back makes for a bit of a jarring transition, as the last thump of the drums leads into Ryan’s cry of “So slowly I’m losing who I’ve sworn to be” over still, solemn piano chords. It’s probably intentional, meant to jar you out of your groove and get you to ponder what’s being said against the quiet backdrop. Much like “Naive”, there’s a bit of frustration expressed here with the limits of an immature faith, of putting God in a box. And yet there’s a plea here to go back to innocence, to regain a lost sense of hope, to live outside of that box. And what started out as an empty, grey sketch of a song is gradually filled in by the lushness of the background instruments that are slowly sprinkled into it. The banjo, and most surprisingly, the electric guitar crop up again here, adding an interesting depth of texture to a song that requires a bit of patience to fully appreciate.
10. Green Screens
Is that a mandolin? I love the folksy sounds that the guys have been exploring on this album, and the way they’ve adapted them to this “dream pop” context. They saved one of the album’s key tracks for close to the end (they must have considered it a highlight, since they ended up making a music video for it, which is worth tracking down due to its creative stop-motion animation using paper cutouts), bringing back the upbeat mood of “Timelapse” but allowing the mandolin and piano to work together as the main melodic thrust, providing a unique hook as they play in unison (this briefly fooled me into thinking they were using a harpsichord or something). The climax of the song, though still quiet by most “rock album” standards is a lovely little explosion of drums and strings that segues nicely into the quiet outro, setting us up for the final piece of the contemplative puzzle.
11. All This to Say
The final track plays almost like a lullaby, with Ryan gently holding out the notion of the future being a blank page as he gently plucks his ukulele and Dan wrings one last dreamy melody out of his piano. I think many of us heard the idea that God knew us before we were made expressed in songs by Christian artist before (again, looking to the Psalms for inspiration), but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else sum it up as intriguingly as this before: “All this to say, our future is a blank page/That we chose to pour ourselves into when God pressed play.” Again, there’s that image of trying to examine and understand the past but only having a hint of a beautiful memory to hang onto, and again, there’s that idea being a storybook waiting to be written that seems to have been hinted at in a few of SAL’s previous songs. This idea probably explains the intriguing photo in the liner notes, in which Ryan and Dan are rifling through a bunch of books that are seemingly full of blank pages. (What all of this has to do with the owl on the album cover is beyond me, but hey, pretty album cover.)
Storyboards is, unsurprisingly, ideal music to play while curling up with a good book. It may not be the most obvious entry point if you’re new to the band, unless your tastes run more folk and classical than pop and rock. I’d recommend Keep No Score as a good way to double-dip and check out both sides of the band’s musical persona if you’re investigating SAL for the first time – if the more guitar-oriented stuff floats your boat, there’s plenty of dreamy goodness to be found on Ghosts, and if you like the mellower stuff, jump forward to Storyboards. Either way, you’re getting quality music by a band that is committed to an artful expression of faith and doubt and innocence and hurt and what it means to wrestle with the whole thing. That’s an increasingly more difficult thing to encounter among artists who profess the Christian faith these days, so I figure it deserves a spotlight wherever it can be found.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Side By Side $1
Slow & Steady $1.50
Birdcage Religion $1
Green Screens $1.50
All This to Say $1.50
Ryan O’Neal: Vocals, guitars, ukulele, keyboards, etc.
Dan Perdue: Bass, guitars, keyboards, etc.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: