In Brief: The Outer Planets don’t get as solid of a suite as the Inner Planets, with a few feeling like mere afterthoughts. Despite punting slightly on the theme, the two Space EPs are satisfying as a whole and are best listened to as a complete work, just as Darkness and Light were intended to be.
I’m just gonna jump right in, since this really is really the second half of a two-EP set designed to function as a complete album but released in separate segments, which has been Sleeping at Last‘s overall design for the Atlas series. Taking us out beyond the asteroid belt, Ryan O’Neal‘s exploration of the outer planets, most of them incredibly massive compared to our meek little home, but also quite elusive in terms of features that can easily be mapped to personality traits, falls a bit short of the standard he set for himself on the first half of this little project. Since Atlas didn’t come with the hard, built-in deadlines that Yearbook did, I have to wonder why he sort of punted on a few of these, but with that said, there are no truly bad songs in the Sleeping at Last canon, and this EP is no exception to that rule, with its weakest moments coming across as merely pleasant. There’s nothing here as majestic as “Sun” or as unusual in its instrumental construction as “Mercury”, but I do like how it wraps up on an off-kilter note with an alleged “bonus track” for the demoted planet Pluto, which just might be the best thing that the far side of the solar system has going for it.
Sort of a hybrid between instrumental and lyrical piece, this song is like more of a mini-suite, taking a happy-go-lucky piano theme and morphing it through four miniature “movements”, some upbeat and grandiose, some moody and ambient, which is no easy task for a four-minute song. I’m continually amused at how Ryan has such cinematic aspirations while he persists (however unintentionally) in keeping the songs to easily digestible, radio-friendly lengths. It works in his favor here, with each of the little segments of the song meant to represent one of the four moons that Galileo Galilei discovered. The song is written from his point of view, hoping that in his obsessive study of the massive planet and its satellites, he will find a way to “Make these messes matter, make this chaos count”.
For a planet so massive, second only to Jupiter in its size, I’m actually surprise that Ryan’s take on this one seems so distant and reserved. The cellos are lovely, and there’s something interesting about the sound of the piano in this one, which is cold and distant, as if being played down the hall, and you’re slowly approaching to find out who’s producing that sad but lovely little melody. This one serves as a lyrical companion piece to “Jupiter”, also taking its time with an instrumental opening that occupies about half the song, and ultimately exploring the feelings of Galileo’s children, left behind after his death to ponder his work and to wish he could be there just one more time to explain it all in person, like telling a story to a small child who can’t grasp all the science behind it yet, but who remains eagerly transfixed on the story his wise old dad is telling. “I’d give anything to hear you say it one more time/That the universe was made just to be seen by my eyes.” Even if the song doesn’t do what I feel like it should musically, that line is a heck of a tear-jerker.
The foggy, distant piano chords and mellow ambiance continue here, slowly unfolding over the course of a purely instrumental track that is once again pretty, but that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. I’ll always be enchanted by the way Ryan has used faint background vocal melodies to add a sense of supernatural wonder to several tracks in this collection, but I have to be honest, this one feels like filler. What bugs me the most is knowing that it ended up as an instrumental only because Ryan couldn’t figure out a way to write a song about Uranus without getting distracted by the same middle-schooler that lives inside most of us, who can’t help but crack up at this poor planet’s name. I have a dirty mind, so I get that. But since none of these tracks mention their subject by name, I don’t see how writing a song about the characteristics of this particular planet would have needed to fall victim to that. I don’t feel the same emotional attachment to Uranus (stop snickering!) that I do the Moon, which has been discovered by humans who have returned with amazing (and sometimes harrowing) stories to tell. All we’ve ever sent to the outer solar system is a few robots. How would Uranus feel if it were a person? What would it be like to be the only one in the solar system with a completely skewed view of things due to your axis of rotation being on its side? That’s just one idea that could have been pursued here. Ryan did careful research into the traits of most of the other planets, so I feel like the ball was dropped on this one.
Since Neptune is the mythical king of the ocean and the planet named for him is an ice giant, it’s fitting that Ryan tried to go with cold and wet-sounding instrumentation here… unfortunately, what he got was more of a mid-tempo ballad with rather uninspired percussion just sort of clunking its way along, with some quirky keyboard sounds standing out as the only other unique thing in the mix apart from the usual piano and “ghostly” backing vocals. The lyrics are all about rain and oceans and a man setting sail around the world, perhaps as a way of discovering himself, or as a way of avoiding getting close to people he’s afraid to admit his love for. I’m not really sure. the line “I’m only honest when it rains” in the chorus is an interesting one, but once again, I’m having trouble getting a clear picture of the intended metaphor. Despite the somewhat underwhelming musical mood, the chorus melody is one of Ryan’s stronger ones, and the song becomes compelling in its own strange way as it wraps up our exploration of the actual planets in the solar system.
…and then there’s the quirky misfit Pluto, kicked off of the solar system’s roster back in 2006 and forever doomed to be the butt of all astronomy-related jokes that aren’t about actual butts (since that’s Uranus’s department). Ryan hits a home run with this one, using electronic keyboards and some oddball vocal samples to create a song that moves quickly and efficiently, almost like clockwork, depicting an individual who doesn’t really fit into the rest of society and who remains misunderstood, perhaps a bit of a savant, but definitely someone who means well and who has just been burned a bit by his fellow humans carelessly casting him aside. It’s intentionally too upbeat and goofy of a note to end such a collection of songs on, and that seems to be exactly the point – Ryan describes this one as a “bonus track”, but after the first EP‘s opening track “Sun”, it actually might be my second favorite of the entire bunch.
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