In Brief: Thoughtful, beautiful, poetic even until the bitter end. September marks the finish line in a race few artists would have the tenacity to finish, let alone with such flying colors.
Another first of the month, another Sleeping at Last EP… hey, what’s this? It’s coming out on the 7th instead of the 1st this time around? Where’s the solace for having to part with my rent money?
I kid, but it was weird to see Ryan O’Neal break from the usual release schedule for Sleeping at Last’s Yearbook project when he first announced this in late August. After sticking to such a rigorous schedule to make sure he never fell behind, he decided he really wanted to finish up the project without being rushed. Fair enough. Ever since seeing the cover, which brought the idyllic image of Oahu‘s eastern shore back to watercolor life after first doing say way back on the October EP, I was on pins and needles to hear how he would complete the project. Those first songs from a then-fledgling project seemed like the kind of thing that might warrant a bit of calling back to, seeing as the artwork was an intentional bookend to its stick figure photographer’s journey. The genesis of the project was “Homesick”, so would we be returning home in some fashion? Would we have finally found the sound we spent our whole lives searching for?
Interestingly, while September does offer some beautiful thoughts to close this yearlong project, it sidesteps the expected cliche of coming full circle. It ends with definite resolve (and I mean that literally), but it doesn’t end back where it started. One gets the sense that Yearbook was a journaling process, an exercise in expanding horizons for an already accomplished songwriter, and so it makes sense that his thought process wouldn’t necessary tie everything up in a neat little bow, likely being at a different place emotionally or spiritually than he was when the idea for the project first dawned on him. So while there isn’t quite that air of finality that I might have come in expecting, the same quality songwriting is still present, and September might just be a little heavier on the arrangements than many of the other EPs. Like October, there’s an upbeat tune with a well-placed female guest that turns out to be the highlight out of the three. But the remaining two tracks are a little heavier on the melancholy than usual, one forming its arrangement solely around strings and completely abandoning any pretense of pop or rock instrumentation, while the other subverts the expected “hushed piano ballad” cliche and attempts to do something a bit more abstract with it.
1. Noble Aim
The ukulele – a central instrument on both Yearbook and Storyboards – makes its curtain call here in an upbeat song that has a warm, optimistic glow to it. Right from the get-go, October‘s lone upbeat entry, “Next to Me” wowed me with its innocent take on love and destiny written on our hearts since our youth, and with the sweet backing vocals of Eisley‘s Stacy Dupree. Here SAL ropes in another of my favorite female singer/songwriters, Katie Herzig, for a more grown-up take on love. Katie echoes Ryan almost note for note as me muses on the idea of human souls being like trees, getting broken with the wear and tear of weather and wildlife over time, but still stoically reaching toward the sun, housing whatever animals in search of shelter it can manage to. It’s a world away from the “what we happen to feel” nature of young love, much more in the mode of commitment to be in it for the long haul, even if it breaks our branches and threatens to dig up our roots. (The tree analogy is also interesting in light of July‘s “Wilderness”.) Following the recipe for a great many of SAL’s more rousing songs, it knows when to be a full wall of sound (complete with mandolin – yum!), and when to back off for a quiet verse, as it does for the near-whisper of a refrain that Ryan ends it with. Those sorts of unassuming endings have more or less become Yearbook‘s trademark at this point.
2. Goes On and On
This one might be considered Sleeping at Last at its most stark. For years the band, as it slowly morphed into a solo project, has increasingly eschewed rock instrumentation in favor of a more stripped down sound, and this takes that idea to its logical extreme, removing all percussion, bass, guitar, and piano from the mix, and leaving behind only strings and vocals. Naturally that means this song’s going to be a dramatic slow burner, and it’s a moody one at that, sticking to a mostly minor key chord progression. Forces of destruction and rebirth advance upon each other slowly, inexorably, making small sounds seem like an unbearable din to the ears (“Like a grand piano slowly falling down a million stairs” – that’s one of Ryan’s best lyrics, right there), and making small victories a harbinger of great joy to come (“Like a wrecking ball in reverse”). Resting completely on a trio of stringed instruments was a gutsy move, but it pays off beautifully as its sweeping refrain grows louder and louder, finally dropping off into silence like a bird suddenly falling out of the sky… and then gracefully rising again for one last, solemn reprise. It’s powerful enough that this could have been Yearbook‘s closing number. But instead…
…we end with this rather abstract piano ballad, an unusual entry even considering the wide gamut of song styles that Yearbook has to offer. On the surface it’s another stark ballad, the spare, trickling piano keys barely holding it together. But it turns out to be a rather fluid piece turning these corners that suddenly open the floodgates, filling the space with warm, rolling notes like a gentle spring rain, and allowing the tempo to speed up and slow down to fit the emotion of the song. You can probably guess from the title and the punctuation that a lot of weight rests on this one as Yearbook‘s definitive closing number. That period is as intentional of a full stop as the comma in “Atlantic,” was as a connecting piece to the track that followed it, and September ends the project here with quiet grace, reflecting over this gentle arrangement of keys and strings about what it would mean to truly welcome change. It’s a theme that Ryan’s been singing about in various forms for a full year now, and really quite a malleable one that seems to always leave this songwriter grasping for a better understanding of it. It may seem like a repetitive theme, especially if you were to listen to Yearbook straight through. But I tend to look at it one man documenting the process of opening his heart to whatever twists and turns God has in store – never an easy thing, and never something that a human being can quite seem to master. His musings on it are as poetic as ever: “What was flawless canvas-white/What was kindness in our eyes/Is now a blemished masterpiece, an astigmatism life/But let’s cut right to the chase/To when the best of us was on display.” While the song has structure as it moves from those quiet verses to the much busier fingerwork of the refrain, it doesn’t feel like a typical verse/chorus at all, so this won’t be one of the songs that gets itself stuck in your head. It’s a paradox, an ending that deals with transitions, a finale that sneaks up quietly and leaves you hanging on those last few words, expecting something other than the simple, resolved piano chord that finishes it off right after them. “The doors will open wide for you/It was said just like it was the truth/If we walk right through…” Could that really be the end? Alas, it is.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Noble Aim $1.50
Goes On and On $1.50
September might leave me going into October 2011 wishing we could start the cycle all over again… but 36 songs written, arranged, recorded, and distributed in the space of a year has got to be enough to wear out even the most hard-working of artists. Coming up with at least one song per month that knocks it out of the park would seem to be enough of an accomplishment, but going above and beyond that to craft mini-morsels like the January, February, June and July EPs (my personal favorites of the bunch) on that sort of a timetable is unheard of, and that makes the one or two minor slip-ups along the way (the slightly weaker April and August) more than forgivable. So congratulations, Ryan (and sometimes-member Dan Perdue). You’ve earned yourself some well-deserved rest… now go spend it on a tropical beach or something.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
http://open.spotify.com/album/7Eo61cFGGxddEB9F25pDE6 (Entire Yearbook series)
Originally published on Epinions.com.