In Brief: It may be short, but the first two tracks are possibly SAL’s most fully realized single artistic statement yet, while the third is as lovely as their ballads come.
…and then there was one.
It didn’t come as a huge surprise to me when Sleeping at Last announced in mid-May that Dan Perdue was leaving the band. Even in the Ghosts era, when the band functioned as a full-on rock trio, there was always a sense of personal intimacy to their music, a unified feeling from song to song that made it feel like the thoughts came directly from Ryan O’Neal‘s imagination to the listener’s ears, with the full band merely serving as a conduit to dress up those thoughts in the most beautiful way they could. The departure of drummer Chad O’Neal after Keep No Score took any pretense of SAL being a rock band with it, and while I occasionally miss the dreamy electric sound of their old days, I think the lush acoustic approach has suited them extremely well, placing the focus more on the words while still giving various instruments a chance to shine. Dan Perdue, while his official role may have been bassist, often contributed piano, looping and sampling, and a handful of the more unusual instruments heard on the band’s Yearbook project thus far. But the writing was pretty much all Ryan’s job, and I sort of wondered how long a collaborative project between two people, aiming for the output of three albums within the space of a year, could last before one or both of them decided it was time to take a break. That breaking point came last month. I don’t pretend to know the reasons behind it (from how Ryan’s blog explained it, it was as amicable a departure as you could want, and Dan will still participate as a guest contributor from time to time), but my sixth sense sort of told me it was coming. SAL just feels more like a solo project these days. It was honestly getting weird to keep referring to them as a “band”.
The full effects of Dan’s departure probably won’t be felt until the July or August discs, I’d imagine, because the three tracks on their June EP still feel lush and fully orchestrated, and Dan is still credited for the same multi-tasking he’s always done on Sleeping at Last records. Guest players add a classical touch with instruments like the harp, banjo, and violin. In terms of richness of sound, it’s one of the finest in the Yearbook lineup, which is a relief, since the last EP I felt was truly great instead of merely just good was February. But in terms of the material, it’s also one of the shortest EPs in the lineup, clocking in at under ten minutes. Part of this is because two of the tracks are essentially a single song split into two segments – a gorgeous instrumental and the grand baroque pop song that it gradually evolves into. That sort of suitelike approach is a first for SAL, and something I’d like to hear them explore if and when they return to making full-length albums. But it also makes June‘s third track feel like only its second song, and thus the EP seems to peter out a little more quickly than I wish it did. Reportedly Ryan was working on a fourth track, but I’m going to have to assume he decided it was wiser to bank that one for next month. In any event, June is a morsel worthy of its predecessors, and it has me convinced that whether it’s in large or small quantities, SAL will continue to put out immaculate, literate material as a solo act, just as they did as a trio and then as a duo.
Does that trailing comma bug you like it bugs me? It’s quite deliberate – intended to tell you that a song title has been split between two tracks, and that they’re meant to be taken together as a unified piece. A track by this name was promised to us back when SAL delivered the understated but lovely “Pacific” on the March EP, and much like its cousin, this one paints a peaceful picture of a vast seascape with bright piano chords and the gentle call of a violin. Unlike “Pacific”, this one’s got a bit more rhythm and structure, establishing a melodic sequence that will carry forward into the proper song that follows. As it ebbs and swells, a banjo is gradually sprinkled into the mix, and as always, I think that’s a lovely instrument that doesn’t get enough credit due to the hillbilly stereotype surrounding it. This piece feels epic enough that it could have been the introductory track on a full-length album. So many SAL pieces are beautiful, but fade off into the ether after three minutes or so, as if they were just snapshots with no pretense of fitting into a larger picture. I like that this one bucks the trend.
2. The Sea of Atlas
As the drums pick up and the music shifts to a poppier setting (without needing to change the other instruments involved – which I love), Ryan sings of an overwhelmingly large ocean with no land in sight, a place of great adventure but also great risk. Thematically, this links back to the voyage embarked upon in “Land or Sea”, except that now the protagonist is at his farthest point from home, wondering if throwing caution to the wind and embarking on this search for new shores was really worth it. The fear he describes is a common one, I think: “We live and die under the thumb of fear/As if the finish line will merely disappear/If we take one less step/Even to catch our breath.” Change takes longer than we would often like it to, and it’s easy to confuse slow progress with no progress at all. The chorus begs some questions about this yearning for change even when we are afraid of it: “A design flaw?/Or the olive branch that proves the shore/The catalyst for so much more.” I like the use of the term “olive branch” there – a subtle nod to a story well-known in the Christian faith, about a man who had to remain adrift much longer than he probably anticipated, before finally seeing the proof that there was still any land in existence. Put together, I’d rank “Atlantic, the Sea of Atlas” as one of Sleeping at Last’s top ten recordings to date. It’s that good.
Each EP’s gotta have one minimalistic ballad, and this one’s no exception. It could have been little more than a tone poem, if simply left to the stark but warm hum of the electric chords that guide the melody along. However, the song’s most prominent fixture is the harp – an instrument already used to lovely effect on a handful of Yearbook songs as far back as October‘s “Next to Me”, but here is where it really gets a starring role. It, too, gently plucks out chords at the beginning of the song, as if to be sensitive to Ryan’s lament about how we try but fail to regain lost time. There’s a genuine feeling of mournfulness to this one, as it stares death plain in the face as uncomfortably as November‘s “Emphasis” did. The second verse is one of Ryan’s most striking, putting you right in the middle of that untimely funeral, in the mind of the person still figuring out how to grieve: “We dress our best to receive their sympathy/At our worst, we dress our best?/’Time heals all’, according to these greeting cards/Oh, how we’d rather time resets.” The bridge of the song gives the harp space for an understated but tear-jerking solo, before returning for a final verse that seems to prematurely drop off into silence, which at this point is becoming one of SAL’s most easily identifiable trademarks. I’d have wanted to let this one linger for a bit longer, just to sit in that quiet space and sympathize for a few more minutes without the need for words. Despite that, it’s still an effective, heartfelt composition.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Sea of Atlas $1.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.