In Brief: “Planets as people.” That’s what these songs are going for, personifying the characteristics of the major bodies in our solar system. The music may not be as radical a shift from the usual SAL sound as I would have liked given such a grand concept, but it’s another solid entry in the Atlas series.
Much like some of the early entries in the Yearbook series, the first of two space-themed EPs in Sleeping at Last‘s Atlas series took me several listens to realize the quiet genius contained within many of its songs. It’s been my habit, as Ryan O’Neal has undergone this creative writing exercise of cramming what seems like the entire universe into bite-sized, themed EPs of five or six songs apiece this year, to expect him to somehow break out beyond the usual, understated-but-pretty baroque pop sound he’s settled into so comfortably over the last few years, and to do something truly surprising that would suit the sheer vastness of such a project. That may be a bit unfair of an expectation, but for better or worse, I’ve gotten so used to this sound by now that it can take me a few listens to appreciate the new things being tried on a smaller scale – the instrumental collaborators being brought in here and there to add unusual elements to SAL’s sound that might not become apparent until I really listen to the nuts and bolts of an individual song. That definitely happens here, with some tracks seeming like the usual, fragile, piano or keyboard-based ballads that have earned O’Neal a slew of television soundtrack credits over the years, only to them come to life in three dimensions with unexpected bursts of sound, or at least wispy, cloudy layers that prove the unusual and hostile atmospheres of these planets may have inspired a little nudging outside of the comfort zone.
The basic aim of Space, in both of its volumes, seems to be less about describing the celestial bodies themselves, and more about imagining what they’d be like as individual personalities. I can only imagine that composer Gustav Holst was an inspiration here, though despite some classical influence, this is much more of a singer/songwriter take on the theme, also taking a few of its cues from the mythology that gave rise to several planets’ names, but also imagining what a place so hot or bright or cold or distant or seemingly familiar might have to say about itself, or what impact studying it might have on its Earthbound observers. This isn’t an educational record, per se – there are nerdy facts about the planets that inspired the mood and texture of each song, but if one were to listen to them without knowing their titles, it might not be immediately apparent that these songs are about planets at all. I found this mildly disappointing at first, but as I’ve come to “live with” their various personalities, I’ve found it to be a mostly successful exercise, an interesting way of thinking outside the box for a songwriter who spent the lion’s share of the last year writing on such familiar themes as Darkness and Light.
The opening track, an ideal segue out of the Light EP’s song cycle, celebrates the “golden string” that gives life to our solar system, starting off like the usual gentle piano ballad, but not taking too long to build up with rolling percussion and all manner of majestic string and keyboard sounds. The result is the best song on either of the Space EPs, one that seems to glimmer like the golden ball of fire it describes. It’s more of a poetic description than a scientific one, noting the dependence of our tiny planet on it for continued survival, marveling at how we seem to have come from particles of its stardust long ago, and pondering the concept of its size compared to our with childlike wonder: “Infinity times infinity times infinity.” If you’ve been following the metaphorical parallels between the universe’s creation and a single human’s birth and growth that have been woven throughout the first two EPs, it doesn’t take a whole lot of reading between the lines to see how the Sun plays a God-like role in this celestial dance.
It simply wouldn’t be a Sleeping at last production without a Jeremy Larson arrangement somewhere in the mix – the man has added his share of gorgeous strings to several SAL songs over the years, but here, he’s been tasked to use only horns, in the backdrop of a song that was intentionally made from only metallic instruments. I love the sharp, ringing sounds of the piano and the various bells and chimes in this one, though from just listening to it casually, you might not realize that much of the percussion comes from a custom-built drum kit made of used auto parts. Jordan Hill is the mad genius behind that contraption, and I’m always a sucker for using everyday objects as unorthodox instrumentation, but the end result isn’t as outlandish as you might expect given the ingredients. it’s a pretty, mellow song that turns about like a kaleidoscope of color, but the lyrics, despite their mention of “precious metals”, don’t seem as strongly connected to the “space” theme as some of the other songs do, instead using the idea of a metallic planet as a metaphor for a person’s dissonant personality traits being pulled together into something whole and purposeful.
I’m quietly enchanted by this subdued little love song, with its “cooler” (as in, the opposite of warmer) keyboard sounds wandering up and down, with some weird, squiggly, “spacey” sounds in the background, adding to the overall sense of mystery and wonder at what is out there. Here, Venus’s discovery is used as a metaphor for romance. with the astronomer realizing, as he obsesses over the fuzzy pictures he sees through his telescope and the dawning realization that this object is a planet and not a faraway constellation, that he’s discovering his true passions as he discovers this mysterious planet’s secrets. The big “Awwwww!” moment comes when you realize that this “astronomy in reverse” is how Ryan views his relationship with his wife – in his mind, she’s the one who discovered him. I like how the different vocal parts overlap near the end of this one – it’s not as heavily layered as some of my favorite SAL songs, but it adds an air of intricacy to a mostly simple song.
Much more stark in its construction is this song about our home planet, which ,musically has far fewer moving parts to it – just a piano and strings. Ryan had decided those were the most “earthy” instruments, though personally I would have preferred banjo or mandolin or his old standby the ukulele – for some reason, this one just doesn’t seem to have the musical scope to do justice to a song about the courage it takes to face natural disasters. He’s got two more EPs coming up to more fully explore the themes of land and sea, so this one might just be a sneak preview, and there is some subtle drama to it that makes it similar to more melodramatic Yearbook entries such as “Emphasis”, “No Argument”, or “Goes On and On”.
This tranquil instrumental piece works as a solemn companion to “Earth”, once again based around mostly piano, though there are some ethereal bits of vocal echo that give it more of an “angelic” sort of mood. Ryan’s goal here was to score the Apollo 11 mission, and if you listen really closely, there are some bits and pieces of audio from NASA’s communications during that mission. I like how the meter shifts effortlessly from 4/4 to 3/4 and back again – it doesn’t feel forced and the shift is almost subconscious. This one definitely makes it easy to visualize the sheer wonder of seeing our planet rise from the point of view of its satellite, but as I’ve pointed out before, if you didn’t know any of the song titles, it wouldn’t be immediately apparent that this was about space – I could see it accompanying words of fond remembrance at a memorial service just as easily.
Since Mars is the God of war, Ryan kind of went against his own instincts to write about happy and peaceful things, and tried to write a song about conflict, and the act of a soldier sacrificing his life to protect the ones he loves. Like “Earth”, it’s not as musically aggressive as its lyrical themes would suggest, but I guess the intent here is more to ponder the fragility of life and the meaning of a person’s willingness to lay it down for his family or country or whatever cause he believes in, than it is to thrust you right into the middle of the chaos. This one gets going at a pretty good pace once it picks up, with the glimmering piano and the looping background vocal melody adding to its nervous energy. As a closing track, it’s a bit of a cliff-hanger, but since we’ve essentially got a full album’s worth of musings about the solar system split into two EPs here, that’s to be expected.
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