In Brief: A disappointingly short and sparse EP, even by Sleeping at Last’s mellow standards. Musically, the songs don’t really capture the spirit of travel, or life on the far reaches of the map that they aim to describe.
As excited as I am to be getting new music from Sleeping at Last every few months, I have to admit that I’m starting to get diminishing returns from the Atlas series. For a project so ambitious that it aims to metaphorically describe the creation of the Earth and the universe around it, it’s actually come out on the subtle side of things far more often than I find myself wishing it would. It makes sense to bring focus to the heartfelt poetry of Ryan O’Neal, and not to dilute it with too many sonic layers on a regular basis, but when his songwriting is focused on more majestic subjects such as the planets and their imagined personalities, I’ve found that sometimes the arrangements have been too modest to really stand out.
That trend unfortunately continues with Land, the fifth EP in the series, intended to be paired with the forthcoming, all-instrumental Oceans EP. Perhaps he’s just saving the more expansive string sections and other breathtaking arrangements for the compositions that don’t need to fit any lyric or song structure, but the end result is that the meager four songs on Land, each named for one of the cardinal directions, come across as a bit dry (if you’ll forgive the pun), with only one of them really standing out. There are only so many simple acoustic ballads you can hear from the same guy before they all start to sound the same, and considering that he’s now released the equivalent of five and a half albums in the span of just over three years (Yearbook‘s twelve EPs worked out to a three-disc set, and then you’ve got the Atlas pairings of Darkness/Light and Space 1/Space 2), he’s gotten to the point where the familiar patterns are far too apparent, and need a little shaking up. I still think Ryan has an exquisite way with words, which can give great emotional resonance to even the smallest and humblest of musings. But I find myself wishing these songs could be bolder in their character, more accurately representing the varied landscapes found at the extremes of the Earth’s continents – I want “North” to sound more chilly, or “South” more tropical, or “East” more exotic, or “West” more… well, western. Not that these interpretations needed to fit my specific stereotypes of what lies at the four corners of the Earth… I just wanted these songs to take me farther away from the familiar center of the map in some way, and for the most part, they don’t.
The first track is pretty in its own quiet way, much like Yearbook‘s gentle holiday-themed entry “Snow”, with its modest piano melody and gently quivering strings. However, it doesn’t feel like the right place for this EP to start. “North” is really about settling into a place and calling it home, spending years and years there until it becomes worn and familiar. Ryan is great at finding compelling metaphors in this mundane world… it just seems like it belongs on a different EP. There’s such an air of calm finality to it that it feels like a premature finale, meant for some later point in the series when the character doing all of this exploration and self-discovery has finally come to rest. It doesn’t work well as a starting point.
Ryan’s trusty ukulele is the lead (and pretty much only) instrument in this track, also a quiet meditation, this time on the nature of truth. Kind truths and harsh truths are described here as though they were at opposite ends of the map – both give us character, but as Ryan puts it, “If truth is north, then I am true south”. The stripped-down, almost demo-like approach in this track fits the laying bare of a humbled man’s soul as he realizes how much he has left to learn, but it feels like a narrative step back coming after “North”, and overall this one feels like one of those in-between tracks at the end of one of the Yearbook EPs, kept simple for the sake of meeting a deadline. Some good thoughts here, but the stark presentation doesn’t really compel me to look deeper into them.
The best song of the bunch is the one that best captures a sense of exploration and conquest – this one really should have opened the EP. Ryan plays the role of a has-been king, reminiscing about the old days: “I set out to rule the world/With only a paper shield and a wooden sword.” There’s a subtle grandeur to this one – it doesn’t burst forth with bright sounds as prominently as “Sun” did, but its melody openly reaches toward the heavens in a similar fashion, while the piano melody has this barely-tangible sense of childlike wonder to it. Strings hover in the background to add a slight touch of mystique, and there’s one point where their soft plucking seems like it could be a callback to Yearbook‘s “Tethered”. This one’s the only track on the EP to include drums or any of the layered production that typically draws me to the more fleshed-out numbers on Sleeping at Last’s various projects, but even with that in mind, it’s not the obvious “big” song of the bunch, except by comparison to the purposefully small-scale ones that surround it.
Some pretty acoustic finger-picking gives this one a similar flavor to “Dear True Love”… and is that a bit of slide guitar I hear in the background? I suppose that adds a very subtle western flavor to the song, but it’s pushed so far back that the track seems afraid to establish a unique personality for itself. The piano accompaniment becomes more prominent as the track gets going, and eventually the strings and some other bits of “baroque pop” instrumentation hint at more of a climax that the song never quite seems to reach. Lyrically, this one starts strong, with mere inches on a map representing the vast miles between two people. Ryan promises to maintain a sense of closeness despite the distance: “I can’t get you out of my mind/I solemnly swear, I swear that I’ll never try.” It’s cute, but the chorus that simply repeats “We’ll be just fine/I know that we will” seems like an afterthought, and by the end of the track, it seems only loosely committed to its directional metaphor. The beginning of this song sets me up for a sense of exploration and adventure – two people trying to find each other in the vast, unknown western wilderness. While I still think this one fares better than “North” and “South”, it still doesn’t feel like it quite lives up to its potential.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
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