In Brief: A heartfelt start to what promises to be a fascinating series. I just hope the next few EPs show more of the experimental side we heard on Yearbook.
We’re reaching a point in the “digital age” where an increasing number of musicians seem to have grown bored with, or at least feel constrained by, the album format. It could be that some express their thoughts better in brief collections of songs released every few months, without the weight of an album release creating massive expectations for them, while others don’t want to have to edit down their output to the 80-minute limit imposed by a physical disc. While I’ve often worried about what this format change might do to the unified listening experience that I enjoy getting from a complete “album”, certain artists who work well within the EP format have managed to overcome my previous bias against EPs and demonstrate that they can still provide a thematically satisfying experience with a sense of “completeness” to it, even in such an abbreviated format. In the case of Sleeping at Last, it’s because this solo artist masquerading as a band gave me something new to look forward to every month for an entire year, as the Yearbook series was recorded and released in 2010 and 2011. Ryan O’Neal‘s ability to compose 3 new songs from scratch and actually make the finished recordings available to fans via his website on the first day of the following month was a feat that would be commendable for any artist, but the high level of quality and sonic diversity among those 36 songs was surprising, given the hectic schedule. It’s because of that series than an artist who had already earned my trust with three full-length albums earlier on was able to maintain it despite not offering the immersive experience of 10-12 new songs to dig into all at once. EPs simply mean more to this artist than just a new single to get excited about plus some scattered demos and B-sides. Because of this, I was incredibly excited for SAL’s new project, set to be unveiled in early 2013.
This new project, Atlas, is an ambitious one to say the least. Like its predecessor Yearbook, it’s an ongoing series of EPs, but it’s different in the sense that the EPs are longer and the schedule is much more loosely defined. The freedom from a pre-defined release date for every EP – or even the number of EPs that will comprise the entire series – frees Ryan up from the stress he experienced getting the previous project done. As much as I would fear that this could lead to procrastination and even the series getting abandoned like it might for some other artists who have made the folly of naming a release “Part 1” and then never following it up, Ryan is a man who I tend to trust when it comes to seeing his ideas through to completion. The overall theme of the series seems to be as expansive as the universe itself, possibly revolving around the story of its creation, but taking that idea of something being made from nothingness and applying it on a very personal level. That’s at least the general idea that I’m getting from the first collection of songs in the series, entitled Darkness, and what the upcoming EP, called Light, seems to be hinting at as well. Further installments could turn out to prove me wrong.
If you’ve heard anything by Sleeping at Last from Storyboards onward, then the musical style heard on Darkness won’t be particularly surprising. Most of these songs are lushly orchestrated ballads, based around the piano or ukulele, and each one of them progresses beautifully as it builds in intensity, but taken all at once, most of it tends to feel like “more of the same” from an artist who’s proven himself capable of thinking outside the box when needed. Where Darkness succeeds over the previous series is that the songs feel like they have adequate time to complete a thought and then wind down, versus the general approach on Yearbook which was to end a lot of them abruptly, within a span of 3-4 minutes, often just as a song seemed like it was reaching its emotional climax. This might speak to the benefit gained by not imposing a strict deadline. Still, there isn’t much that will appear to be different on the surface, so if you’re like me and you listen for surprises first, details second, and you finally start to untangle the lyrics later on, the songs on Darkness will probably be the type that you can easily respect but that take a while to fully fall in love with. I’m hoping that more surprises will be revealed on future installments, just to keep SAL from falling into a stylistic rut, but what we have so far appears to be a good start that should be welcoming and comforting to the ears of existing SAL fans (and probably also some new listeners who came onboard after being smitten by the contribution of “Turning Page” to the Breaking Dawn soundtrack – which I have to admit was a pretty good one despite my ambivalence toward the Twilight series).
I find it interesting that the big, orchestral piece on this EP is not the opening song, where you’d expect it from the title. Instead, the song with the job of introducing us to an entire series starts off meekly, much like the hushed “Homesick” did on the first Yearbook EP, with just Ryan’s voice and his ukulele sketching out a sparse melody. “It starts with our eyes well acquainted with the darkness”, is how the first line goes, so it makes sense to open small and not big. But it isn’t long before creation’s dance gets underway, and there’s a noticeable shift in the tempo and mood that is unusual for a Sleeping at Last song – sunny it’s more of a happy-go-lucky rhythm, akin to “January White”. This brightens the mood considerably, bringing in piano and some beautifully rolling drums, and it becomes clear that this isn’t so much a story about the universe being created, but rather a single soul, formed out of the ether, opening its eyes to life’s wonders for the very first time. Though it’s only a four-minute song, this “Overture” has the mood of a longer, more epic song, due to the change from slow to fast and then back to slow again at the very end. As SAL’s more “panoramic” songs go, it’s going to be hard to beat the breathtaking “Atlantic, the Sea of Atlas”, and it’s interesting that my personal favorite song from Yearbook may have ended up being the namesake for this new series. With all of that being said, this is still an excellent start.
What seems like a subtle, even slightly murky piano ballad at first actually turns out to be one of SAL’s most instrumentally diverse songs. It just doesn’t announce its array of instruments all loud and proud, like a lot of my favorite baroque pop music does. For a song whose lyrics carry the sort of weight that this one seems to, perhaps the subtle approach is more appropriate. But I’m amazed at how long it took me to notice the mournful cello, the exotic but scaled-back percussion, the banjo, the harp, and so forth, all gently playing against the watery piano melody and then seeming to disappear back into the ensemble. Ryan’s lyrics are tentative, describing some sort of an emergency that changed a couple’s very perception of the world around them, and from the context, I have to assume it involves an unborn child, but I’m not quite sure of the outcome. Are they marveling at an ultrasound? Was there a miscarriage? Or has the child actually been born? The poetic approach makes it possible to support numerous interpretations, and of course Ryan’s fragile voice has to go and maintain just the right balance so that I can’t tell whether to be elated or sympathetic on his behalf. Though the song seems to hit its climax and end abruptly (just like a great many on Yearbook – Ryan likes to take a philosophical musing and end the song on its last word just to make sure it gets noticed), it’s one of many where my respect only deepens as I analyze the lyrics more closely: “It’s a cruel, cruel trick/How we find ourselves/When we lose everything else/Like a train wreck/The sound of your breathing hits my ears/The world reappears/And it breaks us new.”
3. I’ll Keep You Safe
I’m getting a strong Keep No Score vibe from this song. Even though SAL was a three-piece band then and has become a solo act since then, I’m still brought back to my favorite album of theirs whenever a song of theirs takes on a caring, fatherly tone. “Needle and Thread” and “Umbrellas” both did that beautifully, and while this tender ballad, with its constant, rolling piano melody, doesn’t sound like either of those, it puts me in a similar mood. Put simply, this is a love letter from a parent to a child, promising not just protection, but to be by the child’s side as he/she experiences the joy of exploring the world, and all the things within it that are new from a child’s perspective. I suppose it’s only natural for an artist to view their offspring as an artist in training, so it’s fitting that Ryan’s choice of words hints at some of his former songs as he encourages the kiddo to go out and experiment and make mistakes and just revel in the vast grace of it all: “You’ll be an architect, so pull up your sleeves/And build a new silhouette/In the skylines up ahead/Don’t be, don’t be afraid/Our mistakes they were bound to be made/But I promise you I’ll keep you safe.” There are moments when I wish this one had more of a grandiose “swell” to it as it reaches its final chorus, but there’s something to be said for understated beauty as well, and I think Ryan has captured that skillfully here.
4. Bad Blood
One disadvantage of having pretty much the entire EP, save for the middle section of “Overture”, operating in “lush ballad” mode is that is seems inevitable for one song to sort of blend into the background, musically speaking. This would be the one. Whenever I listen to it, I’m struck by the delicate high notes from the piano, the subtle use of a choir for backing vocals, and the distant, twinkling piano melody. But there’s something about the vocal melody and overall rhythm and pace of this one that never sticks in my head after the song fades away. I’ve often wondered this about several SAL songs that I can’t say are anything less than artfully constructed – often they’re built around some of Ryan’s most revealing poetry, and this one, which seems to reflect on the passing of an estranged father or other relative that a family may have had a cold relationship with, is certainly no exception. SAL doesn’t really do songs that are “dark” in a musical sense – they may sometimes approach sad or depressing subjects, but they’re usually discussed with a heavy dose of grace and sympathy. (See “Silhouettes”, “Hourglass”, “Naive”, “Birdcage Religion”, etc.) Often these sorts of songs are full of reflective pauses in the lyrics, where the music just sorts of hangs there in a holding pattern for an extra measure or two to let us collect our thoughts on the matter. It’s a good dramatic device, but it can kill the melodic momentum of a song, and sometimes even in personal favorites of mine such as “Needle and Thread”, this can be an issue for me. This song isn’t as obvious about that as some of SAL’s past work – the background ambiance and the rhythm of the piano remain constant. Still, it kind of feels like it needs a little extra push to help it get going again after some of those intentional gaps in the lyrics, so despite not being a bad song, it ends up being the odd man out on this EP.
5. Uneven Odds
Ah, there’s that orchestral “overture” that I was looking for. If there’s one thing SAL has taught me to love, it’s the ability of a good string arrangement to go beyond the cliche you’d expect from such a thing in popular music. It’s been an element of their music since the early days, and Ryan seems to know some of the best folks to bring in when a flurry of emotional, bowed instruments is needed. Sometimes the effect is whimsical, such as when he pulled in Van Dyke Parks for “Clockwork”, and sometimes the effect is one of contemplative grandeur, accomplished here by the illustrious Jeremy Larson. Larson’s work on Yearbook turned me on to his own solo work, which in turn got me interested in the collaborative project Sucré, and through all of these, I’ve discovered a man with a very distinctive style (helped by the fact that he can play each stringed instrument all by his lonesome) that I can now easily identify without having to read the credits of a song he’s contributed to. It’s a gorgeous thing when this song starts off with a strong dose of strings-a-flutter, and an interesting thing when it fades back to the bare piano melody that it was constructed around, even if it leads to more of those stark, contemplative pauses that Ryan sometimes overuses. Death and/or loss have been with us for two songs now – if the previous one was about a difficult relationship with a father, this this one’s pretty clearly about the loss of a beloved mother. It’s not often that Ryan begins a song with words as heavy as these: “I once knew your father well/He fought tears as he spoke/’Your mother’s dead.'” It’s surprisingly blunt for a man who usually speaks in symbolism, and while there are still a lot of sky-high metaphors being flung about in this song (“Maybe your light is the sea/And the darkness the dirt”), the premise is probably one of the most striking of any of his songs, simply because this kid has now lost both his parents. Like “I’ll Keep You Safe”, the song plays out as if it were a letter written to a small child, but it’s pretty clear that Ryan is some sort of adoptive father or godfather to the poor kid who has now been thrust into an unfamiliar and painful new life without the parents he/she had become attached to. It’s heartbreaking, but Ryan’s words do their best to encourage, playing off of the overall theme of the EP as he optimistically writes: “Darkness exists to make light truly count”. The relationship between the strings, the bare piano, and some other instruments such as the acoustic guitar and banjo is interesting here – it seems like one group swells up and takes center stage, only to fade out of focus and let another take over, which gives the song a very natural sort of ebb and flow as it rises and falls for over five minutes, making it the longest thing I’ve heard from SAL since the early days. I like how this one trails off at the end on that notion of making light count, setting us up for the next installment in the series. At the same time, with Darkness often exhibiting a muted color palette, and without ever really dipping into a dreary one, I can only hope that Light has room to differentiate itself from a collection of songs that turned out to be more autumnal than truly dark.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
I’ll Keep You Safe $1.50
Bad Blood $.75
Uneven Odds $1.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.