In Brief: A shorter EP than SAL’s usual, but the lovely arrangements and unabashed sentimentality in the wake of Ryan’s daughter being born last year make it more than worthwhile. I only hope he picks up the pace in getting the rest of Atlas: Year Two done.
It’s probably wise that Ryan O’Neal didn’t give himself a set schedule for his enormous Atlas project. The first part of the trilogy, which commenced near the beginning of 2013, took him until well into 2014 to complete despite it being labeled Year One. Now, nearly a year and a half after the Oceans EP closed that first chapter, the first EP of Year Two is finally complete. He’s actually chosen to release each song one at a time as he completes them, so the first two of these four tracks have actually been floating around since mid-summer, but I didn’t feel right hearing the project in pieces, so I waited until he released the final song in September to listen to these four tracks all together. I’m glad I did. The year off seems to have refreshed his creative energy, and while no aspect of the charming, heartfelt baroque pop style heard here will take longtime SAL fans by surprise, these songs about childhood and parenthood certainly feel that much more authentic due to how he’s drawing from his own personal experiences here. Picking a theme and tenderly exploring its nuances has become one of his strengths as a songwriter, and as a result he’s one of the few artists for whom I’d say it’s been a good thing to abandon the “album” format and release his work in bits and pieces instead.
1. Overture II
Unlike “Overture”, which was a full song in its own right at the very beginning of Atlas: Darkness, this is just a short instrumental piece. As the strings swell up, hinting at the melody of the song that follows, it’s meant to conjure up an image of life being slowly formed out of the inanimate.
Like many of my favorite SAL songs, this one starts with a simple, compelling piano melody and builds its way up to a state of total grandeur. It takes a talented artist to meticulously arrange so many instruments and sound effects – piano, strings, banjo… heck, even the beep of a heart monitor shows up here as a nice little callback to the sonar pings in “Southern” from the Oceans EP – without losing the heart and soul of the song. It helps that the melody sweeps and sways with an emotional heft that reminds me of “Atlantic”, an earlier ocean-themed song that still stands out as one of my all-time favorites. The story of Ryan’s wife bravely bearing the labor pains as their daughter was born is told with tenderness and wonder. A lot of guys would freak out in the delivery room, or just plain not be able to stay in there – I’d sure as hell be one of ’em. But Ryan, at least in the idealized world of this song, is her rock, calmly repeating the mantra “you’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay” as they watch the baby’s heartbeat go through its peaks and valleys. When their little girl is finally brought into the world, his words are every bit as charming as they were in “Umbrellas” all those years ago, when he could only imagine such a moment: “We were changed in an instant, we became so much more/Our definition of perfect was written when you were born.” Dude has a knack for writing lyrics that make me think, “Aw, I wish every kid could her their parents say that.”
Here Ryan grapples with his own identity in what he calls one of his most personal songs. Which it’s the male side of a pair of “sibling songs” meant to explore the two genders, you’re barking up the wrong tree if you expect “masculine” to mean tough or macho in his world. It’s actually a bit of a playful song, or at least the rapid, trickling notes from the piano make it sound that way. French horns add a bit of a warm ambiance that I’m not 100% sure fits with the piano, but Ryan’s muse told him brass was more of a masculine type of instrument while the strings he usually favors were more feminine… I’ll stop overanalyzing and just go with it. the song was inspired by bits and pieces of wisdom Ryan had received from male mentors over the years, most of which boils down to a single word or phrase he got from these men when reaching out to them for inspiration. One central theme of the song comes from a friend who advised him to view his daughter’s fingerprints with a magnifying glass. he identifies with those fingerprints being a part of him, finding identity in his role as a protector and a caretaker. It’s interesting that he emphasizes vulnerability here, singing in the chorus, “I’ll run the risk of being intimate with brokenness”. The lyrics go deep enough here, and are riddled with enough little hints at other songs he’s written, that I actually find myself wanting the music to slow down a bit and appreciate the gravity of the words a little more. But there’s a very precise reason for this song to be at the exact tempo that it is, which has to do with the song that follows it.
The strings are back here, of course, in a song that, in its exploration of the feminine side of our species, manages to be more than just cute, cuddly, and playful. Inspired by his daughter learning to walk, Ryan has written a song about a woman finding strength and confidence as she learns to explore the world around her. What could have been a sappy ballad instead becomes a bit of an anthem, as the loving father encourages her: “You’re ready, born ready/And all you gotta do is put one foot in front of you.” The confident feel of this song is interesting when juxtaposed with the vulnerable lyrics of “Son” – it’s almost as if Ryan wanted to emphasize important characteristics of each gender that our stereotypical views of men and women can cause us to overlook. As in “Life”, the “awwww” factor is pretty high here, as he tells his daughter she’s basically royalty in his eyes, and that “our ceiling is your floor”, another way of saying that the very best her parents have done is merely the starting line for this child who is meant for amazing things. (Yes, I referenced “Umbrellas” again. It’s the high bar that I inevitably measure all Sleeping at Last songs against. And it’s exciting to imagine the story told in that song nine years ago finally coming true for its writer.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Overture II $.50
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