In Brief: A gorgeous follow-up that puts Darkness in context as the first half of a whole. Light plays as a love letter from parent to child.
Light, the second EP in Sleeping at Last‘s Atlas series, was designed as an intentional counterpoint to its first EP, Darkness. It probably doesn’t take a genius to figure out that these are two halves of a whole, given the transparent nature of their themes. But these elementary concepts, important opposites in the creation of our universe, don’t lend themselves to the most obvious interpretations when it comes to Ryan O’Neal‘s songwriting. The more sparse and somber atmosphere of Darkness explored the origins of a life born out of chaos, each chapter unfolding as if they were the musings of an adoptive or godparent entrusted with the care of an orphaned child. Now, along come the brighter colors of Light, exploring the impact of those formative years as that child becomes a man. Here, a lot of the slower musing over piano and strings and ukulele that characterized Darkness has its tempo increased and its scope broadened, bringing in more varied instrumentation on a handful of upbeat tracks that remind me of several favorites from the Yearbook series. It’s a stronger collection than Darkness overall, but also one that complements its predecessor, rather than superseding it. Taken together, the two EPs could function as a traditional ten-song “album”, with songwriting that echoes a unified theme more than any of SAL’s conventional album releases thus far. Even if Ryan suddenly decided to turn his back on music, and never got around to finishing the Atlas series, there would still be a sense of completion offered by this humble, but delightful, batch of songs.
The intro here is so strongly reminiscent of the “Atlantic” instrumental that led into “The Sea of Atlas” on Yearbook, due to how it starts out with tranquil piano and builds up gradually with soft drums and banjo strumming, that I can’t help but be immediately enthralled. At four and a half minutes, this isn’t quite as sweeping of a composition, but it works as a nice bookend to the last words heard on the Darkness EP. The baby boy Ryan was speaking to on that track is now growing up, and this song serves as a parental pledge: “I will always hold you close/But i will learn to let you go/I promise I’ll do better.” The euphoric build-up of beautiful sounds, and the promise to achieve nearly superhuman feats, if that’s what it takes to prove his love for the child, seem like intentional callbacks to my very favorite SAL song, “Umbrellas”. It’s not that far to go from “I would catch bullets with my bare hands” to “I will rearrange the stars/Pull ’em down to where you are”. And while this will undoubtedly tug at the heartstrings of any parent in the audience, the smart, brisk arrangement of the instrument keeps it from devolving into pure schmaltz. SAL has a gift for being sensitive and sentimental without being cliched, and that talent is on proud display here.
2. You Are Enough
Staccato strings immediately set an upbeat pace for this one, which is lush yet unfussy in its arrangement – lots of notes trickling in from the strings and piano, but not a whole lot of instruments aside from those and some beautifully rolling drums. The song moves along breezily and tenderly, as Ryan seeks to quell his imaginary child’s looming feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, simply by reciting, “You’re enough, you’re enough, you’re enough, you are enough.” These words strike out as beams of light against the shadows that he acknowledges we all have lurking deep down, needing to be chased away. Here I start to wonder if Ryan was aiming to compose an entire EP’s worth of extensions on the theme of “Umbrellas”, since that confident mantra seems like a perfect follow-up to the notion, “You were meant for amazing things.”
Here we dig a little deeper into the weight of this kid’s history – both in terms of the genetic mess handed down to him by his birth parents, and the frustrating lack of closure caused by their early demise. SAL almost goes country for this one – there’s still plenty of modern day baroque pop in the ukulele strumming, the bright bells and piano, and the quivering strings, but the dominant instrument here is a lively fiddle, confidently riding atop the delicate arrangement. (A little bit of banjo doesn’t hurt that perception, either.) Whatever genre you want to call it, it’s a darned uplifting song, since in spite of the kid’s fears of turning out like either his late father or adopted one, Ryan assures him, “You are so much more than your father’s son/You are so much more than what I’ve become.” So, is there any chance we can get this song on to the soundtrack of some blockbuster movie? Because I really wish every kid with daddy issues out there (including the grown-up ones) could hear it. It’s one of the finest tunes that Ryan has ever composed and performed.
4. The Projectionist
Ryan’s love of film comes shining through in another bright upbeat song, this one confidently led by melodic, chiming bells. It’s easy to write a song praising the movies as a means of escape, which is what he seems to be going for at first with the notion that “We’re leaving our shadows behind” as the light from that old projector quite literally shines on to the screen. But there’s something life-affirming that he finds in the art of storytelling, and though the father/son theme isn’t as strong in this one, I find myself imagining it as a father sharing a favorite hobby of his with a wide-eyed child, discovering all these classic movies for the first time, and slowly learning about the real life hopes and fears driving each of the storytellers behind them. I’m really impressed by Ryan’s ability to demonstrate how this experience helps us make more sense of reality rather than just serving as a way to hide from it: “Though truth is heavier than fiction/Gravity lifts as the projectionist rolls tape/And it makes us brave again.” Once again, top-tier songwriting and lively instrumental performance make for another instant SAL classic.
5. In the Embers
The only true ballad on this project is the final song, which seems like the odd man out with its sparse piano arrangement – it brings to mind one of Yearbook‘s slower tracks, like “Emphasis” or “Snow”. Here, the theme of light playing against the darkness really comes to the forefront, as Ryan describes life like the brief burst of fireworks, leaving an impression on the eyes of the observer as they burn out and fade away. Due to this being a purely solo performance, with no supporting instrumentation other than the piano, I sort of overlooked it at first, finding it to be even less colorful than the mellower tracks on Darkness. But as a thoughtful conclusion to a story with two halves, it works well, pulling focus out from the individual story and aiming to describe the larger impact a person hopes to have that will last much longer than his or her brief tenure on the Earth. Digging into the simple poetry gave me a lot more appreciation for this one: “Like fireworks we pull apart the dark/Compete against the stars with all of our hearts/’Til our temporary brilliance turns to ash/We pull apart the darkness while we can.”
As for what’s next in the queue for Sleeping at Last – I have no idea. The Atlas project appears to promise six EPs, judging by the blank slots still shown on SAL’s website where album covers will eventually go. So perhaps those will follow further elements of creation, like Land and Sea (though that might cover a lot of ground already explored on Yearbook). Perhaps other dichotomies of family life or other types of relationships will come into play. As long as Ryan continues to pursue the kinds of diverse arrangements he came up with here, I’m excited to follow him wherever his workaholic muse leads him next.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
You Are Enough $1.75
The Projectionist $2
In the Embers $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.